Being a Servant Master
For weeks now we have been reading about Israel’s escape from slavery in Egypt. God sees the plight of His people, calls forth Moshe to lead the people out. He promised that the people would be redeemed with His mighty hand and they would become His people. Israel indeed escapes Egypt and the clutches of Paro’s army at the Red Sea. Last week we read of that momentous occasion where Hashem establishes His covenant with them at Sinai. And now, this week, our parsha begins with the words, “When you acquire a Hebrew slave…”
What?! They just escaped slavery and right after giving the 10 commandments on Sinai, we are going to discuss making them slaves again?? This seems to be the oddest thing. What is happening here?
This is also shocking because we are reading about the Torah condoning an institution that we find abominable; and rightly so.
As we have often discussed before, the Torah doesn’t aim for an ideal, but to mitigate harm. The Torah requires that a slave be released after 6 years. And even if he chooses to stay longer, he is ultimately released after 50 years. A female slave must be freed when she is of age unless he or his son marries her and gives her full legal rights as a wife. A master who kills a slave gets the death penalty. If the master hurts his slave, the slave is immediately freed. These are quite the opposite of slavery in the other nations of the day where masters was free to do anything they liked to their property, including killing them.
In other words, God is telling Israel, “Do not be masters like Paro”. Instead they are to be people of compassion and mercy. The Torah is always concerned with those who are the most vulnerable; the orphans, widows, crippled, and the poor. Here we have the most dangerous relationship of all, one person having total power over another. This is such an opportunity for abuse. We see this today between people of power and their subordinates, and that isn’t even slavery. We recently had a vivid example of this with the firing of the President of the University of Michigan.
The verb acquire, ka-nah, is used in the Torah for buying, or gaining something, but it can also be used in the context of creating. It is used this way in that famous verse from Psalm 139 where it says “...you created (ka-ni-tah) my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.”
God tells Israel that they cannot keep slaves forever because the people of Israel are His slaves (Lev 25). God acquires(ka-nah) slaves though, in order that they may re-create (also ka-nah) themselves. This is the opposite of Paro who consumed his slaves up and oppressed them.
Rav Shaul uses this same imagery when speaking to Yeshua’s followers in Rome. He tells them that they have been freed from slavery to sin, to become slaves of God. But its a slavery that leads to holiness and eternal life.
This model is for all who are in power structures. Those in power, the masters, must be like Hashem and use their power to give people freedom to create themselves, to flourish. We often find ourselves in these roles throughout our lives. We are in power as parents, grandparents, and even older siblings in our families. We are sometimes in positions of authority in our jobs or when working for volunteer organizations and the like. It is incumbent upon us all to avoid the trap of making “slaves” like Paro, and instead be leaders who give people room to be themselves and to grow.
This is in accordance with Rav Shaul’s instructions to the congregation in Ephesus. He urges slaves to serve their masters as they would the Messiah. But he also enjoins masters to treat their slaves with kindness and compassion. He also urges parents to not frustrate their children and make them resentful.
Many years ago Julie and I were with a woman and her daughter. The daughter kept bugging her mom to do something, I forget what it was, and the mom told her yes, just to get her to shut up. But then later she just told her no, I changed my mind. Later Julie said to me that that mom was teaching her daughter that she can’t trust people’s word. My wife is wise, I think she was right about that.
But I would like to take this a step further. The teachings of Chassidut, the Chassidic Rabbis, say that we are ultimately responsible for one another. This means that we are essentially “masters” of everyone around us. Even if we are not formally in positions of authority, we still are influencers in their lives. We exert power over others in how we treat them, either bringing them oppression or empowering them.To reflect Hashem, we need to be ever mindful of how we are treating people.
Stretching this even further, everyone we come into contact with are “slaves” in some ways to their passions, past hurts, damaged emotions and the like. It is easy for us to dismiss others who misbehave or are obviously broken in some way, and treat them harshly like Paro, instead of with mercy like Hashem. That famous dictum, which has been attributed to dozens of people, “Be kind for everyone is fighting a great battle” is nevertheless true no matter who said it. Being masters like Hashem means that we recognize this and love them, give them room to grow, help them to recreate themselves, instead of dismissing them or treating them with derision. Bearing one another’s burdens is not merely helping people when they are sick or lost a loved one, it is helping them with their psychological burdens as well. This can be very difficult.
Messiah Yeshua urges us to love each other as he loved us. He loved with sacrificial love. He met people where they were at, not where he wanted them to be. He was the Master, but he was the Servant Master. Yeshua used his power and authority to serve rather than command. He was a master like his Father, not like Paro. And he acquired us through his death and resurrection so that we might be able to recreate ourselves with the power of the Ruach Ha-Kodesh.
May we be ever mindful that we are masters of all around us; responsible for their freedom and growth.
May we strive to use our power to heal, free, and empower others.
May we take responsibility for one another by “acquiring them”, and thereby giving them room to create themselves anew.
And then we will be masters like Hashem. Servant Masters like Messiah Yeshua.