It's all a matter of context, how we translate the various forms of Ayin Bet Dalet - the root meaning to serve. How easy it must seems to us, in our modern context, to know when the text means "servant," and when the text means "slave." But can we be so sure?
In parashat Behar, we read of how we should treat those who, through misfortune, have had to make indentures to another to survive. We are to treat them fairly, and not as if they were slaves (avadim.) And they have the protection of the jubilee year as well. Israelites may not remain in servitude to other Israelites in perpetuity-for they are avadai-"my servants," says Gd.
But Israelites are permitted to make non-Israelites slaves (avadim.)
So-ayin, bet, dalet. Servant or slave? It makes a difference, especially when we get to Lev. 25:55
"For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants(avadim); they are my servants (heim avadai); whom I freed from the land of Egypt. I am the Lrd your Gd." (JPS)
Why does it matter? Well, as distasteful as it is, the Torah appears to allow harsher treatment of non-Israelite slaves than it does of Israelite servants (though the rabbis argued the point.) Do we serve Gd or are we Gd's slaves?
"Why, it's obvious," most people would say. "Surely we are Gd's chosen people, we cannot be Gd's slaves. Our lot is to serve Gd."
We have the freedom to disobey Gd. And to be punished for it. So do both servants and slaves have the opportunity to disobey their masters and be punished for it. So which are we, servant or slave?
"It's a matter of voluntary or involuntary," comes a voice. Oh, really? First, I imagine a lot of people in history, born into a particular caste or social station, who would argue if they ever really had a choice to serve their masters. And, if it is a matter of voluntary, are Jews Gd's voluntary servants, by their choice? Well, perhaps by our ancestors' choice, but not necessarily our own. We're born Jewish and Jewish we are. What choice is that?
Maybe the fact that we people are b'tzelem Elokim means that were are simply droid drone copies of Gd, meant to serve Gd's will? (It seems to me Gd could have devised a less troublesome robot...)
So what makes us servants, and not slaves, to Gd? What is in our hearts and minds. That's what makes us servants and not slaves. We must do what Gd asks of us not only because Gd is greater than us and can compel us, hurt us, threaten us, but because we respect and care about Gd. Aside from the artifice of personality created by the reality of being a slave, can a true slave truly love, revere and respect their master? No, the true slave acts from fear, abandonment, despair.
When we serve Gd only because we fear Gd, then we are Gd's slaves. When we serve Gd because we honor our obligation, we recognize Gd's covenant with us, we want to thank Gd for creation, for freedom from Egypt, for all good things, and so on, then we serve Gd with a willing heart, and not as a mere slave.
This is true for us in everyday life as well. Are we slaves to our computers, or do our computers serve us? Are we slaves to fashion, dressing as we do for fear we'll be ridiculed or ostracized if we don't, or do we simply dress as we do because we want to look good for ourselves and others? It's a subtle difference, but it's there.
The choice is ours. What it means to be an avdei Ad-nai is in our hearts and minds. May we always choose to be Gd's servants, and not Gd's slaves.
©2000 by Adrian A. Durlester
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