By Clifford S. Fishman
This week’s Torah portions are Behar-Bechukotai, Leviticus 25:1 – 27:34.
How do our Bible and our liturgy define our relationship to God? How do we define it?
Leviticus Chapter 25 states that when an Israelite, from financial necessity, sells himself to another Israelite — i.e., becomes the owner’s eved (ayin-vet- daled)—the owner must not publicly humiliate the eved and must not treat the eved “ruthlessly”; the eved is to be treated as a member of the household, a member of the family. And in the yovel (Jubilee year), which would occur every 50 years, all avadim (plural of eved) must be freed.
These restrictions on the owner are explained in verse 42, which the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translates as: “For they are My [God’s] servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt; they may not give themselves over into servitude.”
This explanation is repeated in verse 55: “For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants; they are My servants whom I freed from the land of Egypt; I the Lord your God.”
In each of these verses, the word root ayin-vet-daled appears twice — avdai, aved; avadim, avdei. In each case, the JPS translates the word as “servants.” So do most of the other sources I have consulted. But elsewhere, that word root is translated: “slaves,” as in the Passover song, “Avadim Hayyinu — ata b’nei Horim,” “We were slaves; now we are free.”
Robert Alter translates “avdei” in chapter 25 as “my slaves,” rather than “my servants,” but adds: “The paradoxical consequence of the Israelites’ status as God’s slaves is that they are prohibited from treating each other as slaves.” In other words, being God’s “slave” is a liberating, rather than constraining, concept.
This disagreement over how to translate “aved” in Chapter 25 got me to thinking about other ways the Bible and our liturgy seek to define the relationship between God and the Jewish people. This actually involves two different relationships: the relationship between the Jewish people and God, and the relationship each individual has with God.
As to our collective relationship with God, our scripture and liturgy use many metaphors: slave to owner; servant to master; child to parent; wife to husband; subject to sovereign; and partner-to-partner. Which of these definitions, or metaphors, best defines the relationship of the Jewish people to God? All of them, I suppose, depending on the context.
As to the relationship between God and the individual Jew? Ultimately, each of us must decide that for ourselves, and the first step in doing so is to try to believe in the God portrayed in our liturgy — the God of love and mercy and compassion.
For many of us, that is difficult; many of us, as Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, can only “pray for the ability to pray,” while “bewailing our inability to sense God’s presence.” As we struggle to believe, we also struggle to define our relationship to God; or, to put it differently, we are on our own journey toward arriving at a definition.
That journey can be lonely and frightening. But it need not be. Being part of a Jewish community with others who also have doubts, a community which allows and encourages us to express our doubts, is an enormous help and comfort. When I struggle with my doubts, others are there for me; as I try to be for them.
And for those of us who never achieve a satisfactory definition; who never complete the journey? Well, the longer I travel on that journey, the more I realize that for me, the journey itself is the reward. ■
Clifford S. Fishman is an emeritus professor of law at Catholic University of America, and a longtime member and former president of Tikvat Israel Congregation in Rockville.