S.A.L.T. - Friday
The latter section of Parashat Behar discusses the laws relevant to those who were compelled due to financial hardship to sell themselves as servants, either to a fellow Jew or to a gentile. The Torah forbids overworking or mistreating a servant, and outlines the basic guidelines for how the servant can regain his freedom, either by obtaining the money needed to pay his master for the remaining years of service, or by a relative paying the master for his release. At the conclusion of this section, the Torah commands, “Do not make yourselves gods, and do not erect for yourselves an idol or monument…” (26:1).
Rashi, citing Torat Kohanim, explains that this command is directed toward the man who was forced to sell himself as a servant to a gentile – the situation addressed in the previous verses. Living in the gentile’s home as his servant, he might have thought that he is allowed to follow his master’s example of idol worship and other forbidden activities (Rashi mentions specifically illicit sexual relations and Shabbat violation). The Torah therefore commands, “Do not make yourselves gods” – emphasizing that even while living in the gentile’s service, the servant must remain loyal to God and obey His commands.
Many later writers addressed the question of why this needed to be stated. Is it not obvious that one who serves a gentile remains bound by the Torah’s laws, and must certainly refrain from idolatry?
One answer perhaps emerges from Seforno’s comments to this verse. Seforno writes that in this verse, the Torah speaks of the time when the Jews will be driven into exile and will live among other nations. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 105a) relates that after the Jews were exiled, some turned to the prophets and asked, “A servant whose master sold him, or a woman whose husband divorced her, do they have any responsibilities towards one another?!” They felt that the exile marked God’s permanent rejection of Am Yisrael, such that they were no longer bound by the Torah’s laws. The prophets replied that the exile did not signify the end of God’s relationship with the Jewish People, and that He was still protecting them and they thus remained bound to obey His commands. Seforno thus suggests that the Torah here admonishes us to remain loyal to God even when we are living among foreign nations, because we are always God’s servants. The Torah states repeatedly in this section, “Ki avadai heim” – “For they are My servants” (e.g. 25:55), and we are thus commanded to try to redeem servants held by gentiles, and not to mistreat Jewish-owned servants, because we are all servants of God and thus no one can be entirely subservient to another human being. By the same token, we remain God’s servants even when we come under foreign rule, and thus even in our state of exile and subjugation, we are commanded, “Do not make for yourselves gods” – to remain loyal to the Almighty, to whom we are eternally subservient, even in exile.
Accordingly, we might explain Rashi’s comment to mean that just as the servant must continue obeying God’s commands even while living in the service of an idolater, likewise, we are to continue obeying God’s commands even while living among gentiles under foreign rule.
Rav Yisrael Meir Hamnick, in his Mei Ha-da’at, offers a different insight into Rashi’s comments, suggesting that it speaks to a servant that has undergone a process of drastic spiritual decline. Having sold himself into the service of a pagan gentile, he hardly lives a Torah lifestyle. Rashi understood the Torah’s command to mean that despite his current state of decline, this servant is not to despair altogether. He is urged to, at very least, refrain from idol worship and other grave violations, such as illicit intimate relations and Shabbat desecration. Although he has fallen, he must do what he can to avoid falling any further. The Torah tells this servant not to give up on himself, because God Himself does not give up on such a person. Even if a person has fallen into bad habits, he must not despair or assume that God no longer has any interest in his observance. He must instead try to adhere to whatever Torah precepts he can in his current condition, until the time comes when he will be able to rebuild and recover, and become the devoted servant of God that he is meant to be.
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