“I’ve given you something that’s tov; don’t let go of it”
hile studying parshas Behar last week, which sets forth various laws of Jewish servants and quasi-Jewish slaves, I came across the Rambam’s words that conclude the laws of avadim and with it, the entire kinyan section of Mishneh Torah. Here, as in several other concluding sections of Mishneh Torah, the Rambam presents the philosophical background of the topic as a capstone for his preceding lengthy discussion of its halachos. He writes:
It is permissible to make an eved Knaani do hard labor. But although that’s the law, it is middas chassidus and a path of wisdom for a person to be compassionate and a pursuer of righteousness, and he shouldn’t impose a heavy yoke on his slave, nor harass him, but should give him to eat and drink of all his food and drink….
He also should not demean his slave, neither with his hand or words. The Torah gave them to you for work, not humiliation. One should not engage in excessive shouting or anger at him, rather speak with him calmly and hear out his complaints….
Cruelty and brazenness are only found among the uncircumcised gentiles. But Avraham Avinu’s progeny — the Jews, upon whom HaKadosh Baruch Hu bestowed the goodness of the Torah and commanded them in righteous statutes and laws — are compassionate to all. And so too, among HaKadosh Baruch Hu’s attributes that we are commanded to emulate, is one of which it says, “He is compassionate to all his creatures.”
The Rambam doesn’t want us to miss the forest for the trees. Having learned through a section of the Torah, we need to step back and consider what it has taught us, so that it might imbue us with its Author’s own attributes.
The Torah neither prohibits nor commands working one’s slave to the bone, although it does prohibit doing so with a Jewish servant. And so, we’re left to our own devices, to ask ourselves what kind of people Hashem wants us to become through learning and observing His Torah, and what kind of people we ourselves want to be.
Not everything we can do, the Rambam seems to be telling us, ought we to do, at least not if we want to walk “the path of wisdom.” Want to be wise? Want to be a real Jew? Show compassion and sensitivity, speak calmly and fairly to all Hashem created.
I’m reminded of people who say, with a bit too much glee, “Certain segments of humanity were cursed by Noach’s words, ‘Eved avadim yihiyeh l’echav.’ It’s their lot and fate.” Well, yes, but do you feel the same way about the curse of b’zeiyas apecha tochal lechem, rushing out to work Monday morning to embrace your lot and fate? (Not to mention the one given to woman, v’hu yimshol boch; indeed, be smart and don’t mention it to your wife).
Nestled within the Rambam’s precious words is the powerful phrase: “The Jews, upon whom HaKadosh Baruch Hu bestowed the tovas haTorah, the goodness of the Torah…” Torah is a guide to life, a way to commune with the Creator of all, the human activity that justified the creation of the cosmos and continues to guarantees their ongoing existence.
But above all, Torah is a tovah, a pure kindness with which the Almighty has endowed us. He Himself describes it that way, telling Klal Yisrael, “Ki lekach tov nasati lachem, Torasi al ta’azovu — I’ve given you something that’s tov; don’t let go of it.” Loosening our grip on Torah even slightly, it becomes that much harder to reclaim it.
Torah, it seems, is very sensitive to how we lomdei Torah treat it. Torah said so of itself: “Im ta’azveini yom, yomayim a’azveka — if you forsake me for a day, I will, in turn, forsake you for two” (Sifrei, cited by Rashi, Devarim 11:13). On the other hand, the Gemara (Sanhedrin 98b) teaches that “as one toils over Torah here, the Torah toils on his behalf over there.” Rashi explains, “It seeks him out and beseeches its Master to share its secrets with the one who learns it.”
Spurn the Torah even briefly and it turns to leave. Delve deeply into it and it goes before Hashem on your behalf, imploring Him to open its doors wide to you.
Given the Torah’s sensitivity to how we feel about it, I would imagine that our excitement at the approach of Shavuos, the Yom Tov of Matan Torah, bodes well for our relationship with Torah. Spending some time thinking about the pure tov that is Torah is a surefire way to ignite that feeling of eager anticipation.
The story is told of a world-renowned doctor from Berlin who was once passing through the hometown of the Tzvi Latzaddik, the illustrious ancestor of the Bluzhever dynasty, and was asked to examine him. He pressed his stethoscope to the tzaddik’s chest, only to find what seemed like an accelerated heartbeat. When he mentioned this troubling symptom to the tzaddik, the latter said, “Herr Doctor, we Jews are now just days away from the holiday of Shavuos, when we will once again be receiving the holy Torah, which is the greatest gift ever given to mankind. Do you really now expect my heart to beat normally?”
Gut Yom Tov to all!
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 763. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org