Slavery of Oppression, Service of Dignity

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May 23, 2019

Slavery of Oppression, Service of Dignity

R. Jonathan Ziring

For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants: they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt, I the LORD your God. (Vayikra 25:55)

                In God’s justification for the prohibition for Jews to enslave other Jews on a permanent basis, He claims that Jews cannot be slaves to other human beings, for they are slaves to him.  As Rashi notes, by taking the Jews out of Egypt, his writ of ownership precedes, and therefore overrides, any other claims to the bodies of Jews.  Yet, this formulation raises a fundamental question:  A central theme of Torah is that the Jews are thankful to God for taking us out of the slavery of Egypt.  Yet, as is clear in these verses, we traded in slavery to Pharaoh for slavery to God.  Is this positive simply because God’s service is worthwhile?  Is it because there is reward in the world to come? Or is there a more fundamental distinction between the two slaveries?

                The opening of Bechukotai provides a hint: I the LORD am your God who brought you out from the land of the Egyptians to be their slaves no more, who broke the bars of your yoke and made you walk erect. (Vayikra 26:13).  What does it mean for God to break the yoke of our slavery to Egypt, if he then replaced it with a new one?  Does that qualify as “breaking the yoke”?  It would seem the key is that the two servitudes are fundamentally different in kind. 

                The Seforno in two places notes this.  The slavery of Egypt was fundamentally meant to destroy human dignity, to engender obsequiousness and crush the spirit.  Citing a verse in Yeshayahu (51:23), he notes that the Jews’ tormentors at time literally forced the Jews to lie on the ground so that others could walk on them: “I will put it in the hands of your tormentors, Who have commanded you, “Get down, that we may walk over you”— So that you made your back like the ground, Like a street for passersby.”  In God’s revelation to Avraham that his children would one day be slaves, he uses this verse to describe the nature of the servitude the Jews would face in Egypt (Seforno to Bereshit 28:14).  Then, the Jews would break free of this and burst out of this crushing indignity.  In the Torah description of God breaking the yoke of the Egyptian slavery and making us walk erect, the Seforno notes that this is the fulfillment of that promise. 

                From this, we see that the Jews did not simply trade in one slavery for another.  We traded in a slavery of oppression for a servitude of dignity.  The slavery in Egypt made us subhuman, or at least attempted to.  Service to God is honorable – to be called to actualize the divine is ennobling and makes us walk with out heads held high. By choosing the Jewish people as His servants, God raised us up.  As Tehillim describes this, referring to all of humanity:

What is man that You have been mindful of him, mortal man that You have taken note of him, that You have made him little less than divine, and adorned him with glory and majesty;  You have made him master over Your handiwork, laying the world at his feet, sheep and oxen, all of them, and wild beasts, too; the birds of the heavens, the fish of the sea, whatever travels the paths of the seas. (Tehillim Chapter 8)

By being mindful of human beings, by charging all humans, and the Jews in particular with responsibilities, He has given out life meaning.  While we serve Him, we become masters, rather than servants. 

                It is striking that part of God’s promise in these same verses is that God will walk among us (Vayikra 26:12), as if we were at some level coequals, rather than merely slaves of a master.  What could  make us walk with more pride than that?


Venue: Yeshivat Migdal HaTorah Yeshivat Migdal HaTorah



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