In many ancient cultures, slavery was a social and economic necessity. In Parshas Behar, the Torah outlines the laws of slavery that would apply throughout B’nei Yisroel (the Jewish people) upon their settlement in Israel. Unlike some of the prevalent practices, for B’nei Yisroel the institution of slavery would exist only within a carefully defined framework of laws that ennoble the Jewish slave. According to these laws, the slave could not be sold on an auction-block; rather, the transaction must be made quietly and with dignity (25:42). Furthermore, the master must constantly treat the slave with respect. The master could request from the slave only certain types of dignified service – he could never command the slave to tie his shoes or take his dirty clothes to the wash house because these violate the personal dignity of the slave (Rashi, 25:39). For this reason the Gemara says, “Anyone who acquires a Jewish slave actually acquires a master for himself” (Kiddushin 22b).
The parsha also specifies certain laws that apply in the event that a Jew is sold as a slave to a non-Jew. The Torah obligates other Jews to attempt redemption of the Jewish slave as soon as possible. Nevertheless, even when owned by a non-Jew a Jewish slave must be freed at the 50th sabbatical year, or yovel. In explanation, the Torah concludes: “ki li B’nei Yisroel avadim, avadai hem asher hotzeiti otam meeretz mitzraim. Ani Hashem Elokechem – Because B’nei Yisroel are servants to Me. They are my servants since I took them out of the land of Egypt. I am Hashem your G-d” (25:55). B’nei Yisroel cannot remain in a state of servitude to another person since they are naturally the servants of Hashem. The yovel year at least provides an automatic mechanism for the emancipation of all slaves.
Our parasha nevertheless concludes with two pesukim (sentences) that seem out of place (26:1-2). They constitute a common refrain in which the Torah forbids idol worship, commands observance of the Shabbos, and reiterates the reverence we owe to the Beis Hamikdash (Temple). Why are these laws juxtaposed with the laws of Jewish slaves?
Toras Kohanim (9:4, quoted in Ramban) comments that the two verses actually refer to the case where a non-Jew owns a Jewish slave, and the juxtaposition reflects a deeper insight that physical service often produces similar religious practices. In other words, the Jewish slave working for a pagan master will quickly forget his obligations to Hashem, neglecting to abide by the prohibition against idolatry and neglecting his dedication to fulfill Torah commandments. Therefore, the Torah reinforces the essential elements of Judaism – monotheism, Shabbos (G-d as Creator of the world), and the Beis Hamikdash (the national center of G-d’s chosen people). These special reminders for the Jewish slave help him reject the influences of his non-Jewish master.
The Seforno (26:2) views this special reminder to a Jewish slave owned by a non-Jew as a metaphor that can be extended to any region in which Jews live under the aegis of a foreign society. Just as the Jewish slaves of old, Jews throughout the world can benefit from these reminders in order to revitalize their dedication to our common heritage.