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Two Minutes of Torah: Behar - The Lessons of Slavery

One of the oft-repeated tropes in our Torah is the line “I am Adonai your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”  This declaration is made on several occasions as if to emphasize certain mitzvot and commandments given by God and to insure, that we as a people are constantly reminded that we were slaves in Egypt.  We take this message into our own lives today and at our Passover sederim we say, “we were slaves in Egypt.”  Owning that slavery experience from which we were redeemed by God. 

In this week’s Torah portion of Behar we have a very short portion of only 57 verses.  And in these 57 verses on three occasions we read, “I am Adonai your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”  Emphasizing in each case a different commandment that we are given.  The overall focus of Behar is about the sabbatical year and the jubilee year.  And the regulations and laws that accompany them.  These three occurrences  of “I am Adonai your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” are all related to the regulations and rules of slavery in the context of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years. 

In two of the instances the declaration is made in the context of a law about freeing the slave in the Jubilee year.  In the first instance, it is about the situation where an Israelite is forced to become a hired laborer to another Israelite, in which case, they remain in that space until the Jubilee year, and then he, his children, shall be free and go back to their family and their original ancestral holding and, as it says, for they are my servants whom I freed from the land of Egypt.

Then, continuing along this theme, it tells us again, that if an Israelite becomes a hired laborer to a resident alien, similarly the person should be freed because as the text says “it is to me that the Israelites are servants, they are my servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt. I am Adonai, your God. 

The remaining occurrence of this text, and the first one in the Torah portion comes in a different context.  This time it says, if your kinsmen being in straits, comes under your authority, and you hold him as though a resident alien, let him live by your side, do not  exact from him advance or accrued interest, but free your God, let him live by your side as your kinsmen, do not lend him your money, advance interest or give him your food at a crude interest.  “I am Adonai your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan to be your God.”

In this way, in this occurrence, it is also about our obligation not to enslave.  We were slaves in Egypt, and as such, we know the pain and troubles of slavery and therefore we must never enslave someone by forcing them into a situation where they owe us more than they can repay.  God reminds us in this text that slavery is an undesirable situation for ourselves and it’s also an undesirable situation that we should not be forcing another person into.

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