Thursday, January 31, 2019

"eved ivri" and not "eved yisrael"

This limud should be l'zecher nishmas my father whose yahrzeit is this Shabbos.

Meforshim are bothered by the term "eved ivri."  Why not "eved yisrael?"  Putting aside the fact that the term "Ivri" is ambiguous (is an "Ivri" someone who comes from a place, "Eiver ha'Nahar," or is it a people, or something else?  -- see Ibn Ezra), the fact is throughout chumash we are referred to as Bnei Yisrael.  Therefore, if we are referring to a member of Klal Yisrael who became a slave, shouldn't it be "eved yisrael?"

If you remember the parshiyos from earlier this year (or cheat and use a concordance) I think the answer will be clear.  The term "Ivri" comes up again and again in the beginning of Shmos.  A few examples: the "miyaldos ha'Ivriyos: (1:15) save Jewish babies, including Moshe, who bas Pharoah refers to as being "m'yaldei ha'Ivrim." (2:6)  Later, Moshe goes out and sees an Egyptian hitting an "ish Ivri" as well as two "Ivrim" who are fighting.  Hashem tells Moshe to tell Pharaoh that the G-d of the "Ivrim" has appeared to him (3:18).  At this point in history there is no Jewish nation.  There is a large family, a tribe of related members.  It is only later, post-exodus, after kabbalas haTorah, that we become a nation.  Once that happens, the term "Ivri" vanishes.  The only occurrence of the term "Ivri" after the exodus is in reference to the Jewish slave.  We are now Bnei Yisrael, Am Yisrael, not Ivrim. 

Perhaps the Torah deliberately uses the term "Ivri" with respect to the slave to indicate that the slave has forfeited his identity as a "citizen" in the nation of Am Yisrael.  He still retains his relationship to us as a people, he still retains his identity as a member of the family/tribe of bnei Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, the organizational unity of "Ivrim" that pre-dates our nationhood, but he has forfeited his rights and privileges beyond that.

In Parshas Shmos, when Moshe and Aharon first appear before Pharoah, they tell him (5:1) that "Hashem Elokei Yisrael" has demanded the release of his people to celebrate a "chag."  Pharoah responds that he does not recognize the deity they are talking about and therefore won't agree to terms.  Moshe and Aharon then repeat the same request (5:3) using slightly different language, telling Pharoah that "Elokei ha'Ivrim" demands the release of his people to offer sacrifices to him.  This time Pharoah throws them out.  Why did Moshe and Aharon think repeating the request a second time would make a difference?  And why was Pharoah's response so much harsher this second time?

Netziv explains that when Pharoah heard the term "Elokei Yisrael" he assumed Moshe and Aharon were speaking about letting the spiritual elite of the people go out for a celebration, a chag.  Yisrael is the name Yaakov is given only after he manages to overcome Eisav's angel -- it is a mark of accomplishment.  Pharoah at least hears this request, but is not willing to give in.  Moshe and Aharon realized the misunderstanding and immediately clarified.  It was "Elokei ha'Ivrim," that spoke to them -- G-d of the entire tribe/family, the G-d of the "Ivrim," the downtrodden slaves, not just G-d of the elite.  Everyone needs to be let free to worship.  This Pharoah is not even willing to hear.

It's not "eved yisrael" -- the term "yisrael," as Pharoah understood, is one of chashivus.  Rather, it's "eved ivri" -- a slave has no status.  A slave has forfeited his membership in society, in the nation.

The torah of Ishbitz (see Ne'os Deshe, Beis Yaakov), k'darko, explains that the aim of the Torah here is not to put the slave in his place and stress that he has become an outcast.   Aderaba, the real lesson here is not about slavery, but rather about redemption.  "Ba'shevi'i yei'tzei chofshi" -- the lesson is that even this downtrodden lowly slave can achieve freedom and be rehabilitated .  No outcast is beyond hope; no one is a lost cause, a permanent slave to kinah, tayvah, kavod, or whatever the addiction. 

This explains why our parsha seems to start in the middle of the story.  How did this individual become a slave?  Ikar chaseir min ha'sefer!  Rashi helps us out and explains that we are dealing with a thief who was unable to pay for his crime and therefore was sold as a slave, but all that is missing from the text.  Why does the parsha not start from the beginning of the story, with hilchos gezel and then explain how and why someone becomes a slave?

The answer is that the main idea of our parsha is not the sin of theft or its consequences that lead to slavery.  The main idea of our parsha is the possibility of redemption after the crime.  The seventh year is not just a cessation of work, a shev v'al ta'aseh, so to speak, but rather is a kum aseh, as transformative and rehabilitative experience that changes the gavra of the slave, restoring him to shleimus.

This opening serves as the maftei'ach to the entire parsha of mishpatim.  Why should I be held responsible for damaging another person, for damaging his property, for not respecting his rights?  It starts with the recognition that any and every individual -- no matter who he is, no matter his station in society, no matter how downtrodden he may be -- has inherent value; there are no outcasts that are beyond being worthy of care.  The most worthless member of society is just waiting for "ba'shevi'i yei'tzei chofshi." 

When I was in high school there used to be a faculty member who would like to ask how many times the aseres ha'dibros appeared in chumash.  The trick was to know that Ramban writes that our parsha of Mishpatim is a recapitulation of the aseres ha'dibros, so the dibros in effect appear 3 times and not 2.  Ramban writes that the parsha of the eved ivri parallels the first commandment of "Anochi" which says that G-d took us out of Egypt.  The freedom granted to the eved ivri parallels our freedom from Mitzrayim. Ramban then goes a step further and says our parsha of eved also contains elements of the dibrah of Shabbos because the slave goes free after six years of work just like Shabbos comes after six days of work.  If our thesis re: the rehabilitation of the eved is correct, then the same thought can be extended to Shabbos.  Shabbos is not just a day of cessation of work, but is a transformative, rehabilitative, redemptive experience that restores our sheleimus, our self-worth, our commitment to membership in Am Yisrael the nation, not just the tribal notion of "Ivri." 

Let's experience Shabbos that way.


  1. Very nice idea. And when Yonah centuries later called himself an Ivri, perhaps he was similarly expressing his desire to shed the responsibility of being a part of Klal Yisroel - placed upon us by Matan Torah - while acknowledging his status as a passive member of the "bris yi'ud".

  2. having been eved ivri to Lavan, did Yaakov warn his sons against such service in perek 49: if you listen at the level of (your father) Yisrael*, you will choose the indentured servitude of Yissaschar, resting between the sugyot (ha'mish'p'tayim, 49:14); if however you listen only at the level of (sons of) Yaakov*, you might not come to even [physically**] farm your own land, but that of your master (49:15); and [adds Moshe] if you sink in your freedom to the level of the enslaved Ivrim at their worst, Zevulun's hijacked ships will deliver you to Mitzrayim again, but there will be no buyer*** (Dev. 28:68)

    **of course this goes figuratively too: you might not come to study (farm) that Torah of particular interest to you, but only the Torah portions of your teacher(s)

    ***though Hashem owns all (v'konei ha'kol, amidah), too little listening and not even by proxy will He 'own' your situation {although if lucky, the miscreants will get the message while still on a perilous sea, like Josh M.'s Yonah}