We read in Parashat Behar of the mitzva of yovel, which establishes that all servants are released with the onset of the jubilee year: “It shall be a jubilee for you, and you shall return – each person to his estate and each person to his family” (25:10). The Gemara in Masekhet Makkot (13a) cites the view of Rabbi Yehuda that although servants return to their “estate” and “family,” they do not return “to that which they had held onto from their fathers.” As Rashi explains, this refers to “serara” – a position of authority or stature that the person had held before being sold into servitude. Although the onset of the jubilee ends his period of servitude, it does not restore him to the prominent stature he had held before becoming a servant. This halakha is indeed codified by the Rambam, in Hilkhot Avadim (3:8).
It is hard to overlook the symbolic significance of this halakha. The purpose of shemitta and yovel, as the Torah emphasizes here in Parashat Behar, is to remind us that “the land is Mine; that you are but strangers and alien residents with me” (25:23). The laws of shemitta and yovel essentially limit a person’s control over his land and over other people. They convey the message that “the Israelites are servants to Me; they are My servants” (25:55). As we all share the equal stature of servants of the Almighty, no one has the right to assert unlimited control over property or over other people. Accordingly, the law that an indentured servant does not reassume his former position of stature perhaps assumes great symbolic significance. With the onset of yovel, we are to come down from our high stature, humbled by our newfound awareness of the fact that we are all servants of God. The lesson of yovel is that although society may operate on the basis of certain hierarchical systems, with certain people enjoying greater authority and respect than others, nevertheless, when all is said and done, “geirim ve-toshavim atem imadi” – we are all servants of God. The entire notion of “serara” becomes meaningless on yovel, the time when we are to focus on the fact that we are all equally small and powerless before our Master, the only One who truly exerts any type of “serara” over the world.
(Based on an insight by Rav Akiva Sofer, cited in Likutei Batar Likutei, Parashat Behar)