Serving and Protecting: BeHar-Behukotai 2020

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Pre-Game Chatter: How has our appreciation of those in the service industry changed over these last two months of quarantine? Has our society learned to appreciate them more?

Even though the servitude described in the Torah is far more restrictive than the rules for “servers” in modern American society, our Torah portions teach us valuable lessons of how we treat them:

The Pitch: “If your kinsman, 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 fear your God. Let him live by your side as your kinsman. Do not lend him your money at advance interest, or give him your food at accrued interest.” – Leviticus 25:35-37

Swing #1: “It is forbidden for an Israelite purchaser of a Hebrew servant to put him to menial tasks such as carrying his belongings to the bath-house or untying his shoes, as it is written: ‘You shall not impose on him the service of a bond servant.’ He can only treat him as a hired servant, as it is written: ‘As a hired servant and as a sojourner shall he be with you.’” – Mishneh Torah

Swing #2: “The phrase … ‘for my servants are they … they are not to be sold as the sale of serfs’ expresses the main corollary: God is the sole owner of land and people. The chapter, then, sets out regulations that make perpetual ownership of these impossible.” – Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses

Swing #3: “This paragraph tries to awaken us to the reason why the spirit of God ‘our Brother’ who used to dwell in our midst has become so infirm. When the Torah describes ‘our Brother becoming poor,’ it refers to the ‘spirit of life within us’; the reason it seems to weaken is that it observed that we failed to study Torah and practice the commandments. There is no greater kind of poverty than the dearth of merits due to Torah study and the performance of kind deeds toward one’s fellow man. As a result, the individual Israelite’s light fails. … You are to assist such a Jew who has strayed from the true path to do teshuvah to help him rehabilitate himself. There is no other means which can ensure that the vital spirit be sustained within us which is comparable to the power of repentance.” – Or HaChayim

Late-Inning Questions: How do our commentators reinforce the notion of the inherent dignity of all who work?  What do you think they would say about modern society’s level of respect for different kinds of jobs?  How do we best show an appropriate level of respect?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: We look forward to welcoming Shabbat in song today at 5:00PM. This week, we’ll be honored to be led by Mitch Gilbert on guitar, and we’ll also enjoy the musical talents of Zachary Gilbert, a recent graduate of the Berklee School of Music. Click here to register.

Shabbat Shalom!