What is a Slave?
We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt. This is the story at the heart of the Passover Haggadah. Some editions of the Haggadah suggest a song that begins with We were slaves and goes on to say: Now we are free people. However, this song is somewhat misleading. We are not completely free people. The Torah claims that the Jewish people are still slaves: of God.
This week’s parasha institutes the jubilee year. Once every fifty years, land that was sold since the last jubilee returns to its original owner. In addition, Jews who had sold themselves into indentured servitude or slavery go free. The Torah gives the following reason: For it is to Me [God] that the Israelites are slaves; they are my slaves, whom I freed from the land of Egypt. (Leviticus 25: 42;55) Sifra, the halakhic midrash on Leviticus, explains that God holds what it calls a first or prior bill on the children of Israel. In other words, by redeeming the Israelites from Egypt, God acquired the legal rights to them. All other potential masters have claims that are only secondary.
It might seem overly materialistic, to the point of being distasteful, to speak of God as owner and the Israelites as slaves. This is probably why most English-language versions of the Bible translate the word in the verses cited above as servants and not slaves. Yet the word used, avadim, is the very same word used to describe what the Israelites were to Pharaoh. Furthermore, the idea that Jews belong to God, as slaves belongs to masters, has been for many generations not only respectable but also desirable. The Hebrew name Ovadiah means slave of God, as does the Arabic name Abdallah. Not only that, but Jews refer in prayer to God as their master: Adonai.
Many liberal Jews do not like to think of themselves as slaves of God because that concept seems to devalue both human dignity and independence. A slave is someone who not only does not control her own destiny, but does not even think for herself. A slave follows a master’s commands slavishly. Liberal Jews like to think of themselves as people who think for themselves. Perhaps, though, the fear of belonging to God comes from a mistaken comparison between God and human masters. Human masters are prone to be cruel, arbitrary and unjust. It is the human task to feel the presence of an unseen God who is reliable and benevolent— and feel that presence to be more real than that of human oppressors who are all too visible. To feel that one belongs to God means to feel a sense of gratitude for having been created, and to follow God not slavishly, but with thought and discernment.
The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.