The Torah in Parashat Behar presents a series of laws aimed at limiting people’s control over one another. Specifically, they limit the extent to which the wealthy are able to take advantage of the less privileged. If a person is forced to sell his property, he is given the opportunity to buy it back at a lower price than for which he had sold it, and, if he cannot, then it returns to him with the onset of the jubilee. The Torah requires extending interest-free loans to people in need, and forbids treating servants as slaves. Finally, the Torah imposes an obligation to “redeem” a fellow Jew who was forced to sell himself as a servant to a gentile.
The Torah concludes this series of laws by establishing the basic precept underlying them: “For the Israelites are servants to Me; they are My servants” (25:55). We all share the equal status of servants of the Almighty, and, therefore, no one has the right to assert authority and control over the other. The laws in Parashat Behar seek the balance the competitive nature of the marketplace with an understanding that even the wealthiest among us are servants, and should not see themselves as superior to the poor. We might draw an analogy to two schoolchildren, one of whom is a far superior ball player than the other. The better player might pride himself over his athletic prowess, but if they would play with or against a professional athlete, they would both be equally overshadowed. Somewhat similarly, a wealthy person cannot feel any sense of superiority over his less advantaged peer once he recognizes that in relation to God, we are all powerless and nothing more than servants under His complete authority and control.
Rav Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apta, in Ohev Yisrael, probes deeper into the pronouncement of “ki li Benei Yisrael avadim,” that we can be servants only of God, and not of each other. The idea of servitude, the Apter Rebbe writes, is that the master’s duties and responsibilities are discharged by the servant. Every person has needs that must be cared for, and people hire servants to do for them what they would otherwise have to do themselves. The Apter Rebbe writes that the concept of avodat Hashem should be viewed in this light. God, as the world’s Creator, is “responsible,” as it were, to govern and sustain it. However, He chose Am Yisrael as His “servants,” charged with maintaining the world by obeying His commands and following His will. And for the same reason, the Rebbe explained, no member of the nation can ever be said to truly be the “servant” of another. Each and every one of us has obligations that only he or she can fulfill. Even if a person is blessed with wealth and is thus able to hire others to perform some of his chores, nevertheless, he is a servant who bears special responsibilities to his Master that cannot be discharged by anybody else. We all have our unique responsibilities and obligations that only we ourselves can fulfill, and which no “servant” can fulfill on our behalf. As such, no Jew can truly be a “servant” of any other Jew.
The Apter Rebbe’s insight underscores the fact that financial and social status have absolutely no effect on a person’s essential status, because regardless of our circumstances, we are all God’s servants. Certainly, a fabulously wealthy magnate bears different kinds of obligations than a struggling laborer. Fundamentally, however, there is no difference between them, as both are simply avdei Hashem, servants of God who are to devote their life to fulfilling His will, each in his own unique way in accordance with his unique circumstances. Material benefits, from this perspective, change not a person’s fundamental status, but only the kind of service which he is to perform. No matter what our current circumstances in life are, we must see ourselves as servants of God, and seek to identify and fulfill the special obligations assigned to us.