We find in Parashat Behar a number of laws relevant to servants owned by fellow members of Benei Yisrael. The Torah imposes restrictions both on the nature of the servitude that is permitted, forbidding the master from forcing the servant to perform demeaning or harsh labor (25:39,42), and on the duration of servitude, requiring releasing the servant with the onset of the jubilee year (25:40). In concluding this section, the Torah explains, “For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants; they are My servants whom I took from Egypt” (25:55). Rashi explains: “Shetari kodem” – “My contract came first.” Benei Yisrael’s “contract” with God, whereby they became His servants, precedes any other arrangement that one might wish to make, and, as such, no member can ever become anybody else’s servant. We are all already “owned” by God, and thus we cannot come under the ownership of any human being. Therefore, the institution of servitude in Torah law applies only in very limited fashion, in a way that makes it clear that no member of Benei Yisrael can be “owned” by another person.
Rav Shmuel Borenstein of Sochatchov, in Sheim Mi-Shmuel, explores the deeper significance of this pronouncement – “For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants” – in light of the famous comments of Ibn Ezra in explaining the concept of nezirut (Bamidbar 6:7). Ibn Ezra cites those who associate the word “nazir” with the word “neizer” – “crown,” an association indicated already by the Torah when it says of a nazir who accidentally violated his vow by becoming impure, “timei rosh nizro” – “he has defiled his crowned head” (Bamidbar 6:9). To explain why one who takes the nazirite vow is considered “crowned,” Ibn Ezra writes that people are generally “slaves” to human passions, and the nazir, who seeks to seize control over his base desires by abstaining from wine, becomes a “king” by exerting this control. The nazir is described as wearing a “crown” because he “reigns” over his impulses, as opposed to most people who are obedient servants of their impulses.
The Sheim Mi-Shmuel applies Ibn Ezra’s remarks to God’s pronouncement in Parashat Behar, “Ki li Benei Yisrael avadim” – that Benei Yisrael are servants only to Him. This means not only that we may not come under the control of any other human being, but also that we may not come under the control of our own instincts and impulses. Just as God’s “contract” precedes any arrangement of subservience we might seek with another person, so does it precede subservience to ourselves. When we proclaim each day our kabbalat ol Malkhut Shamayim – our acceptance of the “yoke” divine kingship – we are, in essence, proclaiming our rejection of all other “yokes,” that we are not subservient to any people or to our own impulses. We affirm that no force, whether external or internal, is more authoritative that the divine command, that our commitment to God is stronger than any desire or instinct we might have, and thus we are fully capable of restraining our impulses in faithful obedience to the Almighty’s will.