Who owns you?
This week’s Torah portion, Behar (“On a mountain”), sets limits on ownership of both humans and land. God owns all the farmland. The people are tenants with long-term leases, but God mandates that they must let the land rest every seventh year,1 and every fiftieth year (the jubilee/yoveil) any land that was purchased returns to the family that originally owned it.2 (See my post Behar: Owning Land.)
The same goes for human beings. God owns all the Israelites. If some of them become so impoverished they have nothing left to sell but themselves or their children, they can join another household as servants. But they will not be permanent, inheritable slaves, like the foreign slaves Israelites own.3 Their extended families can buy them back from their Israelite masters at any time, and if they are still serving their masters when the jubilee year comes, they and their children are freed from service anyway—and can return to the land they once sold.4 (See my post Behar: Slave Owners.) God explains:
Because they are my avadim, who I brought out from the land of Egypt, they may not be sold as an aved. (Leviticus/Vayikra 25:42)
avadim (עֲבָדִים) = slaves, servants, subordinates. (Singular: eved, עֶבֶד or aved, עָבֱד.)
In this context, the Israelites are slaves of God, and can only become temporary servants or subordinates of human beings. Even Israelites who sell themselves to resident aliens can be redeemed by their kinsmen, and must go free along with their children in a jubilee year.5
The master-slave relationship between God and the Israelites is a mutual obligation. The Israelites are supposed to serve God by obeying all of God’s rules and commandments, which number in the hundreds. God has absolute power over “their” lives, as well as over “their” land. But just as the human owner of slaves is supposed to provide them with food, clothing, lodging, and all their other needs, God is supposed to take care of the Israelites.6
How did God acquire the Israelites as slaves? In this week’s Torah portion, God says:
In the book of Exodus, after God has rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and led them as far as Mount Sinai, God tells Moses to tell the people:
“And now, if you really listen to my voice and you observe my covenant, then you will be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. For all the earth is mine, but you shall be my kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus/Shemot 19:5-6)
After Moses has passed this on,
They answered, all the people as one, and they said: “Everything that God says, we will do!” (Exodus 19:8)
Thus they wholeheartedly accept their new master.7
The relationship between God and God’s slaves is not always peaceful. The book of Numbers/Bemidbar in particular, which we begin next week in the annual cycle of Torah reading, reports many incidents in which thousands of Israelites refuse to do what God asks, and God kills them.
The psalms offer contrasting opinions of what it is like to be God’s slave. (Since the two psalms below compare God to a human master, my translations use the pronoun “he” and “his”.)
A chant for thanksgiving:
Call out homage to God, all the earth!
Ivdu God with joy!
Come before him with a shout of joy!
Know that God is God;
He made us and we are his,
His people and the flock he is tending.
Enter his gates with thanks,
His courtyards with praise.
Thank him! Bless his name!
For God is good.
His loving-kindness is forever,
And his faithfulness goes on from generation to generation.
ivdu (עִבְדוּ) = Serve! (An imperative verb from the same root as avadim.)
A song for ascending [stairs].
To you I lift my eyes,
Dweller in the heavens.
Hey, as the eyes of avadim are on the hand of their masters,
As the eyes of a female-slave are on the hand of her mistress,
So our eyes are on God, our God,
Until he favors us.
Be gracious to us, God!
For we have had too much contempt.
Our soul has had too much ridicule from the complacent;
It is moaning over contempt from the arrogant.
When life is going well, we rejoice in serving a God that is kind and faithful to us. When life is going badly, we look for God anxiously and beg for succor.
Both of these psalms imply an external god who owns us. But on another level, they can speak to an inner psychological truth: we do not fully own ourselves.
In today’s world, some people are still slaves to other human beings. And even those of us who are relatively independent have only limited freedom to make our own decisions. Most of our behavior is determined by our history, habits, complexes, and abilities. Usually our conscious minds merely notice what we have already done—and instantly generate reasons for our unconscious decisions, to keep up the illusion that we are our own masters. Only occasionally does a new bit of information stop us in our tracks, so that we take the time to think out a new response to life. Only occasionally are we truly free.
Is God the mysterious force that determines the physical and mental operating systems for all creatures, like a master commanding his slaves? If so, we can praise God when things happen that we consider good, and wait with trembling for the next move in God’s plan when things happen that we consider bad. And we can consciously develop a habit of noticing and praising the good that comes our way—the food our master gives us, the beauty of a view, the companions assigned to us, the times when our required behavior is pleasant.
Or is God what we encounter in our moments of freedom? If so, we can cultivate a habit of watching for other moments when we might seize the chance to do something new, and of welcoming the sudden uncertainty when we pause, trembling, and open ourselves to inspiration.
- Leviticus 25:5.
- Leviticus 25:13-17, 25:23-24.
- Leviticus 25:35, 25:39, 25:44-46.
- Leviticus 25:40-41.
- Leviticus 25:47-54.
- “…just as they belong to Him in that He can confiscate and apportion their land, so, too, do they belong to Him in the sense that He is responsible for looking after their wellbeing and welfare for all time.” (Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, Talks on the Parasha, Maggid Books, Koren Publishers, Jerusalem, 2015, p. 267)
- Ibid., p. 268.