Sometimes two flavours that have completely and entirely different tastes can go together in a way that amplifies both flavours. One example is mint and chocolate. Mint is sharp and spicy while chocolate is smooth and creamy. But the combination of the two flavours, as in York Peppermint Patties or in Mint Chocolate Chip ice cream, is delectable[1]. This seemingly irrelevant preface is required so that I can take the words of two commentators whose comments have absolutely nothing to do with each other and merge them together in a way that is, hopefully, delectable.

One of the mitzvot in Parashat Behar pertains to a Jew who finds himself in dire financial straits and he sells himself into slavery to a non-Jew. The Torah commands that we must free this person as soon as possible, so that he should not take on his master’s customs [Vayikra 25:48-49] “After he is sold he shall have redemption; one of his brothers shall redeem him. His uncle or his cousin shall redeem him, or the closest relative from his family shall redeem him; or, if he becomes able to afford it, he can be redeemed [on his own].”

The Torah forbids us to forcibly release the slave from his shackles even though the non-Jewish environment in which he finds himself is adversely affecting him. The owner must be fairly compensated [Vayikra 25:50-52]: “He shall calculate with his purchaser [the number of years] from the year of his being sold to him until the Yovel; then the purchase price shall be [divided] by the number of years; as the days of a hired worker, he shall be with him. If there are still many years, according to them he shall return his redemption [money] out of the money for which he was purchased. But if only a few years remain until the Yovel, he shall make the [same] calculation; according to his years [that remain until Yovel], he shall return the redemption [money].” A slave cannot be sold for more than fifty years. He must be released by Yovel (Jubilee Year). Calculation of the amount of money that must be returned to the slave’s owner when the slave is freed before Yovel is performed using a simple algorithm: The slave has a “yearly value” consisting of his purchase price divided by the number of years between the date of purchase and Yovel. For instance, if the slave is purchased twenty five years before Yovel for $100,000, then his yearly cost is  per year. If he is freed, say, ten years early, then his owner is reimbursed by [2].

The Seforno is bothered by the Torah’s lengthy description of this algorithm. It seems that the last two verses are unnecessary. The Torah has already told us that the value of the slave is a function of the purchase price divided by the time remaining until Yovel. What does the Torah add by telling us that “if many years remain [until Yovel]” then the slave has a relatively high value, but “if only a few years remain [until Yovel]” the slave is worth less?  We have been given a simple formula. Why do we need examples? The Seforno answers that one might have thought that the slave’s value would not decrease by the same amount each year. After all, it takes a certain amount of time for the slave to “learn the ropes”, meaning that he becomes more productive the longer he remains in slavery. Perhaps he would be worth more as time goes on[3]. The Seforno suggests that these “unnecessary” verses come to refute this kind of argument[4], emphasizing that the value of the slave is constant, regardless of his actual performance.

That was the “mint”. Now let’s have some “chocolate”. Rabbeinu Bachye ibn Pekuda offers a Midrashic interpretation of the laws of the Jew who has been sold into slavery to the non-Jew[5], teaching that they are a metaphor for the exile and redemption of the Jewish People. Rabbeinu Bachye begins by mapping the four terms the Torah uses to describe the non-Jew who has purchased the slave with the four nations that have enslaved Am Yisrael over the years: Babylonia, Persia, Media, and Rome. The Torah goes on to teach us that the exile will not last indefinitely: “One of his brothers shall redeem him…” One of the redeemers is “the son of his uncle” – “ben dodo”. This term is highly reminiscent of the term “[Mashiach] ben David” – the Son of David who will redeem us from our exile[6].

The Torah also reveals the key to redemption, and that key is teshuva (repentance). Am Yisrael was sent into exile as a punishment for our behaviour. We will be allowed to return to the Land of Israel as a sovereign nation as soon as we have repented, or, perhaps better stated, as soon as we have proven that we are worthy of such a gift. Rabbeinu Bachye compares the silver that must be paid to the non-Jew with teshuva. Just as silver is pure and white, so does teshuva purify the spirit and cleanse us of our sins. And just as the silver paid by the slave is a function of the time remaining in his captivity, so, too, is the length of our exile determined by the extent of our teshuva. We have the power to hasten or to delay our own redemption. What will happen if Am Yisrael, Heaven forbid, does not repent? In such a case, the Torah tells us, we will still be redeemed “at the Yovel”. There is a time, somewhere in the future, by which Hashem will redeem us, even if we do not deserve to be redeemed[7]. This “end of days” is compared to the Yovel, in which we “proclaim freedom throughout the land”. After this time, we will have only one Divine Master.

Now here is where we mix the mint with the chocolate chips. The Seforno does not explain why the slave has a constant yearly devaluation, perhaps Rabbeinu Bachye can help. The Torah concludes the episode of the slave who has been purchased by a non-Jew with the following words [Vayikra 25:55]: “For the children of Israel are servants to Me; they are My servants, whom I took out of the land of Egypt. I am Hashem, your God.” When Hashem redeemed Am Yisrael from Egypt, He became our sole Master. When a Jew willingly sells himself into slavery, he takes upon himself another master. But when a Jew willingly sells himself into slavery to a non-Jew, he has returned himself to Egypt. Let’s take this one step further. Any exile is an example of Am Yisrael returning to Egypt en masse. Exile is a stain on our national reputation but it is an even greater stain on Hashem’s reputation. The Prophet Ezekiel [36:23-24] reprimands Am Yisrael “I will sanctify My great Name, which was profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst; and the nations shall know that I am Hashem… For I will take you from among the nations and gather you from all the countries and I will bring you to your land”. Hashem’s greatness is infinite, such that any impingement on His greatness is also infinite. When a Jew sells himself into slavery to a non-Jew, Hashem’s name is infinitely disgraced. This slave must be redeemed not for his own sake. It’s not about him. This slave must be redeemed for Hashem’s sake. And so when the value of the slave is calculated, we are not concerned with his own personal value or performance. Rather, each second that this person is enslaved is another second in which Hashem’s name is dragged through the mud. Each second that we let this kind of profanity continue to occur has an equal – and infinite – value.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5775

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka

[1] Unless you happen to be an Israeli. Israeli’s hate mint. They say it tastes like toothpaste.

[2] Using engineering jargon, the decrease in value is a linear function of time.

[3] Using the example above, if the slave would be freed after ten years his owner would be reimbursed by $60,000 but if he were freed after twenty years the owner would still be reimbursed by, say, $50,000 (and not $20,000), as the slave is being freed when he is becoming the most useful.

[4] One could argue that the slave becomes less useful as he ages due to physical infirmity. I’m sure a good actuary could come up with a representative formula that the Seforno would still throw out the window.

[5] As far as I can tell, Rabbeinu Bachye took an amalgam of Midrashim, and not one Midrash.

[6] Rabbeinu Bachye stresses that the Torah uses the words “One of his brothers” to emphasize that the future Mashiach will be of flesh and blood – just like your brother –  as opposed to other religions who allow room for dead Redeemers.

[7] Rabbeinu Bachye also teaches that the words “He shall calculate with his purchaser” that the people that have oppressed Am Yisrael during our exile will “get what’s coming”.