Brotherhood


[Ashkenazim/Sefaradim: Yirmiyahu 34:8-22, 33:25-26

Yemenite Jews: Yirmiyahu 34:8-35:19]


"The word which came to Yirmiyahu from Hashem, after King Tzidkiyahu had made a covenant with all the people in Jerusalem to proclaim freedom for the slaves.  Everyone was to free his Hebrew slaves, both male and female.  No one was to enslave a Jew, his brother" (Yirmiyahu 34:8-9).  After our initial amazement at this declaration of justice and social equality, we may realize that Yirmiyahu's initiative seems to be ill-timed.  The Nation of Israel was in the middle of a war with the powerful King Nebuchadnezzar.  Wasn't it more important to focus all of their energies on the war than to deal with social reforms? Isn’t this something that could wait until later?  This danger is even mentioned by the prophet himself: "While Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylonia, and all his army and all the kingdoms and peoples in the empire he ruled were waging war against Jerusalem and all its surrounding towns, this word came to Yirmiyahu from Hashem, saying" (ibid. v. 1).  This battle seemed lost from the outset: "This is what Hashem says: I am giving this city over to the King of Babylonia, and he will burn it down" (ibid. v. 2).  It is therefore most surprising that Yirmiyahu is involving himself in other matters.  He doesn't seem to grasp the severity of the situation, and is busy with ‘socialism action’ at a time when the homeland is in danger.


In order to answer this question, we must first understand that one does not need a prophet to analyze political and military problems from a strategic point of view.  The role of the prophet is to explain the current situation from an ethical standpoint.   If the Kingdom of Israel is crumbling, it is not because of the military superiority of the enemy, but on account of our own ethical failings.

 

Although it is true that according to the Torah servitude of our Jewish brothers is legal, it is also limited.  It is generally used as a means of reeducation or deterrence, such as in a case of theft.  Through his period of “employment” the thief can provide restitution to the victim when he lacks other means of doing so.  The servitude will last until he repays all of the money he has stolen, but it is still limited to six years.  In the seventh year, all of the servants go free.  Forcing the guilty person to work hard during the designated time is considered the best method of teaching him to respect the possessions of others.  After serving his sentence, despite the severity of his transgression, the thief goes free, since this is his legitimate right.


In contrast to the punishment described in the book "Les Misérables" where the protagonist is sentenced to forced labor for life because he stole a piece of bread, the punishment described in the Torah is immeasurably more humane and allows the transgressor to repent and be socially resurrected.


This is what Yirmiyahu reminds the Nation of Israel: "This is what Hashem, the G-d of Israel, says: I made a covenant with your forefathers on the day I brought them out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery, saying: At the end of seven years you must free any fellow Hebrew who has been sold to you, after he has served you six years, you must let him go free" (ibid. 13-14).

 
Freedom is the dearest of human possessions.  It is forbidden to steal it from another person.  Every morning upon waking, a Jew blesses Hashem: "Who has not made me a slave."  If Hashem freed us from Egyptian slavery, it is certainly not in order for us to return to being slaves to one another.  It is natural and logical to be servants to Hashem.  He is the King of the Universe and of all humanity, "For the Children of Israel belong to me as servants. They are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt" (Vayikra 25:55), therefore, as our Sages have taught, "They are my servants and not servants to servants" (Baba Metzia 10a).


Servitude to Hashem does not impinge upon our freedom since the Master of the Universe is more us than we are ourselves, and through self-nullification to Hashem we meet our true selves.  In this way, we are similar to a seedling rooted in the ground, and a baby in his mother's arms.  This is the greatest freedom.  The Torah is therefore clearly against the servitude of a Jew.  It undercuts the unique image of  G-d implanted in each of us.  Servitude is only legitimate according to the Torah if it is temporary, since in this way it does not collide with our human nature.  But if the temporary turns permanent, and becomes second nature, it destroys the Divine standing of humanity.


The concepts of independence and self are very close.  In order to be oneself, there is a need to be independent.  After the Divine revelation on Mt. Sinai, the Torah presents detailed laws in our parashah, Parashat Mishpatim, beginning with the matter of freeing slaves.


The absolute demand of Hashem, through Yirmiyahu, to free all of the slaves is also designed to solve all of our political and military problems.  If we are not an ethical Nation, we lose our right of existence as a Nation.  The Kingdom of Israel is far from a regular state; it is not simply for the benefit of man (see Orot 160, #7).  It is not Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "The Social Contract" or Thomas Hobbes' "Leviathan."  We are required to be "A Kingdom of priests and a Holy Nation" (Shemot 19:6). 


Ethics need to be elevated to the national level and not limited, as in the other nations, to a good individual trait.  Good character traits must be integrated into the community, the Nation of Israel.  This is what Hashem promised Avraham Avinu: "I will make you a great Nation" (Bereshit12:2).  The greatness of the Nation of Israel is not measured quantitatively but qualitatively, and we lose our legitimacy of existence when we betray our ethical mission.

 

This is the reason - explains the prophet – that Nebuchadnezzar is defeating the Nation, bringing its destruction and its exile.  It is not because Nebuchadnezzar and his culture were more ethical but rather because the Nation of Israel was failing in its ethics.  The ethical explanation of the events does not contradict the circumstantial explanation, since ethics are the soul of circumstances (Orot, Yisrael U-Techiyato 2).  The prophet analyzes the historical events with the help of x-ray vision, and reveals what truly lies behind the events.


How did the Nation respond to this call?  "All of the princes and the entire Nation who entered into this covenant agreed that they would free their male and female slaves and not to enslave them again.  They listened, and set them free" (Yirmiyahu 34:10).  As a result of the community obeying, Nebuchadnezzar lifted the siege, for a reason which is beyond rational explanation.  Our threatening enemy and its army suddenly and miraculously disappeared.


To our distress, however, the evil was still deeply implanted within the Nation of Israel.  "But they returned and took back the male and female slaves they had freed and enslaved them again" (ibid. v. 11).  This is what happens when repentance is superficial and imposed from the outside.  That repentance quickly dims and allows corruption to burst forth again.  The Nation’s kindliness had changed, to our distress, back to selfishness, and this ethical backsliding led to "I command, says Hashem, that I will bring them back to this city, they will wage war against it, capture it and burn it down.  And I will lay waste the cities of Yehudah, without inhabitants" (ibid. v. 22).

 

But history finally put an end to our exile, and we are returning to our Land.  Jerusalem is being rebuilt, reunited, and the cities of Yehudah are no longer destroyed.  It is possible to account for this return to Zion with all types of rational explanations based on historical mechanisms, but the true reason for this occurrence, above all others, is our return to brotherhood within the Nation.  Despite our internal struggles, which are in fact quite limited, our Nation has reunited. Our current existence in the Land connects us.


Unity, which is the foundation of Zionism and building of the Land, is what has allowed us to be victorious in all of our wars.  We must therefore carefully and with great self-sacrifice guard our most treasured possessions: love and brotherhood.