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Beit Midrash Torah Portion and Tanach Behar

The Parasha of Social Justice ... and Anything Else?

1043
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Our short parasha is packed with issues of social justice. These include the social equality elements of shemittah (Sabbatical year) and yovel (jubilee) and limitations and regulation on slavery from abuse (when society was not ready to function without slavery). These conceptually related laws are contained in one long "chapter" (Vayikra #25), which more or less makes up the entire parasha. Two final p’sukim, which mention the ritual prohibitions of idolatry (with one new point), Shabbat observance, and respect of sacred places, begin Chapter 26, which deals with the positive and negative consequences of fulfilling Hashem’s commandments or failing, respectively. However, the Torah, by its spacing of paragraphs, and Chazal, in setting up the Torah portions, contradict the gentile division of the text into the chapters we commonly use. What is at the heart of this subtle but significant dispute as to the connection between sections?
The final laws of the "social section" regulate non-Jews’ ownership of Jewish slaves. A non-Jew can "own" a Jew even in the Land of Israel, even under Jewish dominion (see Rashi to Vayikra 25:48). However, the Torah mandates certain limitations. Just as a Jew must set his Jewish slave free in yovel (Vayikra 25:10), so must the non-Jewish slave-owner (ibid.:54). Just as a Jew may not abuse the slave (ibid.:42) so mustn’t a non-Jew (ibid.:53). In both cases, the slave has the right to be redeemed at a fair price (ibid.:48; Kiddushin 14b). In each case, the Torah explains the rationale behind not allowing permanent slave ownership: "For they are My slaves, whom I took out of Egypt" (ibid.: 42, 55).
After discussing the need for the Jewish slave to remain Hashem’s servant and mandating his eventual freedom, the Torah forbids idolatry and work on Shabbat. Rashi explains that the Torah reminds the slave not to copy his more socially successful master in these areas. The Seforno explains similarly that while the Jewish slave must be obedient to his non-Jewish master, he may not follow instructions that involve sinning, whether it is idolatry, Shabbat, or another sin.
Looking back at ancient and recent history, we should recall that even when formal slavery did not exist, social pressure required Jews to temper the dependence on the non-Jews around them with the mandate to remain loyal first and foremost to Hashem. So whether pogroms or Emancipation made it seem more glamorous or profitable to adopt non-Jewish practices, Parashat Behar, which extends into what gentiles call Leviticus 26, tells us that we must not give in. Non-Jewish employers (or Jews who forgot Jewish values) would say to Jewish workers (/slaves): "If you don’t come to work on Saturday, don’t come on Monday." The brave among our grandparents dared to follow the instructions of Behar’s last p’sukim, remaining loyal servants of Hashem despite temptation and pressure.
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