Behar: Exclusive Ownership

May 8, 2011 at 11:22 pm | Posted in Behar | 1 Comment

A slave is not forever in this week’s Torah portion, Behar (“On a mountain”).

And if your kinsman with you sells himself to you, lo ta-avod him in the avodat an aved.  He shall become like a hired worker, like a temporary worker living with you.  Until the year of the yoveil, ya-avod with you.  (Vayikra/ Leviticus 25:39-40)

lo ta-avod (לֺא תַעֲבֺד) = you may not enslave.

avodat  (עֲבֺדַת) = service of.

aved (עָבֱד) = slave, servant, subordinate.  (Plural: avadim, עֲבָדִים.)

yoveil (יֺּבֵל) = (English: Jubilee)  a trumpet; the year of remission, which comes every 50 years.

ya-avod (יַעֲבֺד) = he shall serve.

Since Biblical Hebrew does not have separate words for “slave” and “servant”.  A servant is temporary, and sometimes paid with more than room and board.  A slave is permanent property, and can even be inherited.  Throughout the ancient Middle East, some slaves were captured in battle, and others were reduced by extreme poverty to selling themselves (and/or their children).

This week’s Torah portion mandates some unusual ways to reverse poverty in an agricultural society.  If a family has to sell its land, it can be redeemed by a kinsman at any time; and even if it is not redeemed, the land returns to the original family every 50 years, in the yoveil year.

If an Israelite becomes even poorer, and has to sell himself into slavery, then he, too, can be redeemed by a kinsman at any time; and even if he is not redeemed, he is set free in  the yoveil year.  Furthermore, the Israelite who “buys” a fellow Israelite must treat him like a hired worker, not like a slave … because all Israelites belong to God, so they cannot be owned by people.

Because they are my avadim that I brought out from the land of Egypt; they may not be sold as an aved is sold.  (Vayikra/ Leviticus 25:42)

The end of the Torah portion Behar warns that Israelites are also forbidden to become servants to any other god:

You shall not make for yourselves worthless gods or idols; you shall not erect a standing-stone for yourselves; and you shall not place in your land a stone with a figure on it for prostration upon; because I, Yah, am your god.  My sabbaths you shall observe, and my holy place you shall hold in awe; I am Yah.  (Vayikra/ Leviticus 26:1-2)


Israelites  belong exclusively to their own god.  They may temporarily serve a human being.  But they must never serve another god.

I was raised an atheist and then chose to become a Jew, so I’ve never bowed before a sculpture of Jesus on the cross, or any other god-image. I have never even prayed to another deity. Does that mean I’m all set? Not quite. According to the portion Behar, I must also be a servant of  the God of the four-letter name, which I translate above as Yah.  It’s not enough to say that I don’t belong to anyone else.  Nor is it enough to say that I belong to God because, like all humans, I have only limited control over my own life.  The question is whether I’m actually dedicating my life to “serving” God.

Maybe studying and writing about the Torah every week doesn’t count.  Maybe my prayers aren’t passionate enough.  Or maybe by the time I find a definition of God that I can accept, I’ve lost the God that the Torah is talking about.

How can anyone serve God as a slave serves a master?  The answer may be in the next sentence:  My sabbaths you shall observe, and my holy place you shall hold in awe.

Aha!  Maybe we serve God by stopping every seventh day to rest, reflect, and reset our intentions.  And maybe we serve God by noticing the holiness of the place where we are, instead of taking it for granted.

When I think of it that way, I’m glad I belong to God.

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  1. […] children are freed from service anyway—and can return to the land they once sold.4  (See my post Behar: Exclusive Ownership.)  God […]

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