“The Gift of Self Esteem”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Re’eh, contains many fascinating themes. Among the most fascinating and challenging are the laws regarding the institution of Hebrew servitude.

In Deuteronomy 15:12, the Torah states, “Kee yee’mah’chayr l’chah ah’chee’chah ha’Iv’ree oh ha’Iv’ree’yah, va’ah’vahd’chah shaysh shah’neem, oo’vah’shah’nah hahsh’vee’it t’shahl’cheh’noo chahf’shee may’ee’mach,” If your brother, a Hebrew man or Hebrew woman, will be sold to you, he shall serve you for six years, and in the seventh year you shall send him away from you for free.

[For an extensive exploration of the fascinating institution of “avdut,” servitude, in Jewish life, and the difference between Hebrew servitude and Canaanite servitude see Behar 5763-2003.]

A Jewish male could become a Hebrew “servant” by one of either two means: a Jewish thief, who could not pay back the principal value of what he stole, was sold against his will by the Jewish court of law. In addition, a Jewish debtor, could sell himself into servitude (the equivalent to entering into “personal bankruptcy” today), as a good faith measure, in order to repay the money owed to his creditors. The period of servitude for both these Hebrew servants would conclude when the debt is repaid, or a maximum of six years have passed, whichever comes first.

The Torah then adds another fascinating dimension regarding the institution of Hebrew servitude. Scripture states in Deuteronomy 15:13-14, “V’chee t’shahl’cheh’noo chawf’shee may’ee’mach, lo t’shal’cheh’noo ray’kahm; ha’ah’nayk ta’ah’neek lo mee’tzohn’chah mee’gor’n’chah oo’mee’yik’veh’chah, ah’sher bay’rah’ch’cha Hashem Eh’lo’keh’chah, tee’ten lo,” When you send him [the Hebrew servant] away free, you shall not send him away empty-handed. Provide him generously from your flocks, from your threshing floor and from your wine cellar; as the L-rd your G-d has blessed you, so shall you give him. The Torah then continues to state that you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the L-rd your G-d redeemed you; therefore, I command you regarding this matter today.

The Torah reminds the Jewish people that, just as G-d did not send the Israelite slaves out of Egypt empty-handed, but with gifts and wealth, the Jewish master may not send away his Hebrew servant without gifts. This gift is known in Hebrew, as well as in Jewish law, as Haah’nah’kah, a gratuity, a bonus, a grant.

R’ Abraham Ibn Ezra and Rabbeinu Bachya both maintain that the purpose of this gift was to raise the self-esteem and reputation of the former slave, as he enters into freedom. A Hebrew maidservant, as well, is entitled to a Ha’ah’nah’kah when she leaves her servitude.

Despite the fact that it is not optional, the later sages regarded the mitzvah of Haah’nah’kah as part of Tzedakah, charity. The master is thus supposed to regard the Ha’ah’nah’kah as if it were not an obligation, but rather a concession and a gift of kindness.

There is a difference of opinion among the sages whether a bankrupt person who sells himself into servitude receives this gift. The debtor, after all, does not walk around with a stigma of a thief, and most often has a way of earning a living. If he did not have employable skills before he entered into servitude, he was probably taught a trade by his master. On the other hand, a thief who has gained his freedom, even if he has a trade, but without resources, will most likely return to his evil practices. Therefore, he must be given a meaningful gift at the time of his discharge. According to the rabbis, this gift’s value was 15, 30 or 50 selaim, which in Temple days was quite a substantial sum.

The gift had to be given from self-producing products, such as seed or livestock, not money or clothes, so that it would survive as an annuity.

The Alshich suggests several reasons why the Jewish master must grant his Jewish slave these gifts upon completion of the service:

1. Even though the Torah permits servitude, it is clear that slave ownership is technically “illegal,” as all human beings belong to G-d. As a result, for this illegal possession, compensation is due the servant upon emancipation.

2. The master/servant relationship is an unequal one, from which the master benefits unfairly. Thus, the master must express his appreciation in the form of compensation, to the servant upon his emancipation.

3. While the servant may serve the master, both master and servant are required to serve G-d. G-d therefore instructs His servants to assist one another.

4. The purpose of servitude is to rehabilitate the downtrodden and to help the servant re-enter society. Therefore, the servant must be sent out with liberal assistance, so that he can achieve independence and success in his life, and not find himself in a position to, once again, sell himself into servitude.

5. Just as G-d sent the Children of Israel out of Egypt generously supplied with material possessions, even though they were greatly indebted to G-d, so too must the master provide his servant with adequate material wherewithal, so that the newly freed servant will be able to start his new life as a free person, on secure footing.

As the Ibn Ezra stated so cogently, “It is not sufficient that the Jewish slave be granted his freedom; it is also necessary that we enable him to obtain an honorable status in society once he is freed. In other words, he must be given financial assistance when he is liberated, so that when he enters society once again, he will be able to do so with dignity.”

Again, we behold a profound reality that from the ancient laws of the Hebrew servant we see that the Torah, a document written more than 3,300 years ago, was deeply sensitive to the emotional needs of the downtrodden. What could be a greater gift to give one who is in pain than the gift of self-esteem?

May you be blessed.