"My Servants…and not the Servants of Servants" – Human Bondage and Divine Freedom

 by Rabbi Dov Berkovits

The redemption from slavery in Egypt represents the formative passage of the children of Israel into peoplehood. This seminal event in the Biblical narrative is understood generally as the supernatural intervention of God in history to obligate the Jewish people to believe in him and to follow his commandments. This root sense of the covenental relationship is given clear expression in the first two of the ten commandments:

“I am the Lord, your God, who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage”.

And immediately the implication follows:

“You shall have no other Gods besides me”.

Chapter 25 of Leviticus, however, reflects an equally fundamental, but different aspect of the meaning of the birth of our People in the passage from slavery to freedom. The God of Israel rejects slavery in all its forms. The historic act by which He creates His people links their very collective identity with the abolishment of slavery.

In Leviticus 25,42 the Torah formulates this principle clearly:

“For they are my servants whom I brought out of the Land of Mizrayim. They should not be sold as bondsmen.

Interestingly, the basic tenet “for they are my servants” is not used by the Torah in a theological context. The Torah does not relate to idol worship by stating: “you are my servants – worship not any other Gods”, used exclusively in Leviticus 25, “for you are my servants”has unequivocally socio-economic application. “You are my servants, not the servants of servants”, implying not the servants of men, is a midrashic elaboration that reflects the essential meaning of the Torah text.

(This ringing proclamation became in early modern times, the Biblical language that was used so powerfully by the founders of western democracy and by it’s vociferous opponents to slavery.

The specific context of Leviticus 25, 42 is the prohibition against enslavement of fellow Jews:

“And if thy brother who dwells with you grows poor and is sold to you (to provide support), you shall not compel him to serve as a slave, but as a hired employee….”

Maimonides, in his conclusion to his Laws of Slaves extended this prohibition, in effect, to the exploitation of non-Jews as slaves).

The broad context of Leviticus 25 frames the limits of power, exploitation and economic self-interest that the Torah requires of a society fashioned in the image of God who despises human servitude. A people conceived in the womb of bondage and born in its miraculous destruction is obligated to abolish interest as a commercial tool that brings more power to those who have monetary resources, to prohibit over-pricing or under-pricing in the market place and to punish those who verbally offend by exploiting another’s emotional vulnerability.

One of the root and recurring images in the Bible is the universality of exploitation, manipulation, coercion and the use and misuse of personal power in human relationships. The enslavement of the children of Israel in Egypt provides the central axis of the five books of Moses. Much of the Torah’s narrative and commandments assumes this basic axiom – to be a servant of God requires one to abolish servitude in one’s human relationships – and its corollary – fear and servitude of human beings is the existential source of idol worship.

Egyptian culture is the nexus – it embodies the negative of all the Torah demands of the People of God. In Egypt there is a clear interconnectedness between human bondage and the pagan ethic of Pharaoh worship. The idolization of power, a projection of the fear of the powerful on the part of the weak, creates both a society that functions by exploiting the weak and a theology of an impersonal God that rules by the powerful forces of nature and by unbriddled divine ambition to be the most powerful force in the universe.

The God of Israel and His people are an antithesis to Egyptian culture. This is layed out clearly in Genesis and Exodus. The Torah in Genesis describes how all relationships are founded on a basic human need for power and control. Adam and Chavah, Noah and his grandchild Canaan, Sarah and Hagar, Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Lea, Joseph and his brothers. This seems to be an inevitable force, as if by design, a built-in dimension of the human condition – marriage, sibling relationships, parents and children, different societies in propensity. The slavery in Egypt is the culmination of this fundamental human prosperity.

One speculates if it is not the very gift of divine humanness –being created in the image of God –which holds in it the potential for destructive human relationships. We are blessed with many powers - physical, intellectual, creative abilities, force of personality, charisma and so on. How often does marriage, friendship, employer-employee relationships and teacher-student encounters become the arena for one person’s acting out of these powers at the expense of another’s conscious or unconscious exploitation and servitude.

Upon the completion of the ten commandments, the Torah in Exodus 21, delineates the laws of injury and damages. Surprisingly, before the prohibition of murder and other capital offenses, we are taught how to free slaves. Bondage and servitude are the primary offenses (Ramban), the sources of violence and death The people chosen by the redeeming God must learn gradually how to abolish human servitude as a basis of civilization – in marriage, in the school, in hi-tech indenture, in the destitute backs-alleys of foreign worker slums, in the consumer oriented manipulation of the communications’ industry, and in the increasingly lopsided division of rich and poor.

 The blessing of the God of Israel in our newborn land, depends on our renewed understanding that the ultimate idol worship is the replacement of the fear of God by the fear of men, the servitude of God by a society where the powerful exploit the dependent, the weak, the poor and the foreigner.