Rabbi YY Jacobson
Rabbi YY JacobsonIsrael National News


The portion this week, Behar, is “the poor man’s portion.” It is dedicated entirely to the poor. In Behar, the Torah legislates numerous majestic and sometimes breathtaking laws in order to protect and assist the poor person.

Among other items it discusses a regression in poverty: a person becomes so desperate that he is forced to sell his ancestral field or farm in the land of Israel; worse, a person is compelled to sell a home used for work in the fields; worse, the situation grows so difficult, a person is forced to sell his residential home.

Worse yet, the circumstances are so dire that he sells himself as a slave to another Jew. (This can usually only be for a maximum of six years. Even if he insists to remain longer, he must leave during the year of Jubilee, which came about every 50th year. If Jubilee comes around in two years, he goes free then. [1] A Jew can’t sell him as a slave for more than 50 years.[2])

Worst is the following situation described in Leviticus (Behar) chapter 25 verse 47:

וְכִי תַשִּׂיג יַד גֵּר וְתוֹשָׁב עִמָּךְ וּמָךְ אָחִיךָ עִמּוֹ וְנִמְכַּר לְגֵר תּוֹשָׁב עִמָּךְ אוֹ לְעֵקֶר מִשְׁפַּחַת גֵּר.

If a resident non-Jew gains wealth with you, and your brother becomes destitute with him and is sold to a resident non-Jew among you or to an idol of the family of a non-Jew.

In this case, he did not only sell himself to another Jew, where at least the culture and lifestyle are similar; but he sold himself as a slave to a non-Jew, where the entire lifestyle is different.[3] The Torah then goes on to command his next of kin to redeem him from his master, by compensating the master for the money he paid to purchase the Jew and thus setting the slave free.

אַחֲרֵי נִמְכַּר גְּאֻלָּה תִּהְיֶה לּוֹ אֶחָד מֵאֶחָיו יִגְאָלֶנּוּ: אוֹ דֹדוֹ אוֹ בֶן דֹּדוֹ יִגְאָלֶנּוּ אוֹ מִשְּׁאֵר בְּשָׂרוֹ מִמִּשְׁפַּחְתּוֹ יִגְאָלֶנּוּ אוֹ הִשִּׂיגָה יָדוֹ וְנִגְאָל:

After he is sold, he shall have redemption; one of his brothers shall redeem him. Or his uncle or his cousin shall redeem him, or the closest [other] relative from his family shall redeem him; or, if he becomes able to afford it, he can be redeemed [through his own funds].

וְאִם לֹא יִגָּאֵל בְּאֵלֶּה וְיָצָא בִּשְׁנַת הַיֹּבֵל הוּא וּבָנָיו עִמּוֹ:

And if he is not redeemed through [any of] these [ways], he shall go out in the Jubilee year, he and his children with him.[4]

In other words, according to Torah law, the Jewish slave can never sell himself for eternity. Redeemed or not, when Jubilee comes around, the Jewish slave automatically goes free.[5]

Absentee Father?

When the Torah mentions the relatives who are to redeem the Jew who sold himself, the Torah enumerates first the brother of the slave, then, the uncle, the cousin, followed by any other relative.

But there is a blatant omission here: The one relative who should have been mentioned first. The father.

The Torah also omits the mention of a mother and sisters. Yet this is understood, for in most cases the mother and sisters were being supported by their husbands. They lacked the means to redeem the slave. The Torah also omits the slave’s son. This too can be explained by the fact that the father usually supports the son, not vice versa.[6] But why is the father not mentioned?

There is another question: The Torah enumerates the relatives who ought to redeem the slave in this order: brother, uncle, first cousin, any other next of kin, and finally the slave himself.

The reason why the Torah feels it necessary to enumerate all the family members instead of just saying "anyone of his family" is to teach us that there is an order of responsibility on who is to redeem the slave. The closest relative, a brother, must be first to step up to the plate.[7] Then the uncle; then the first cousin, etc.

Accordingly, if the slave obtains the means to redeem himself, it is his responsibility to redeem himself before anyone else. If you have the money to give yourself freedom, you can’t ask your brother or uncle to do it for you. If so, the Torah should have mentioned first the option of the slave redeeming himself. And yet, in reality, he is mentioned as the last option: After mentioning all the relatives, the Torah concludes “If he becomes able to afford it, he can be redeemed [through his own funds].” [8]

The Disease

Each law in the Torah, even those not presently applicable, represents a truth that applies to all times, peoples, and places.

The above law is no different: though today—150 years after the Civil War which began in April 1861 and claimed 620,000 lives plus the US President—no one in the civilized world can sell himself as a slave, the concept behind this biblical law applies in our age as well, maybe even more than ever.

Today we also sell ourselves as slaves. There are people, young and old, women and men, teenagers and adults, who reach a place in life where they do not own themselves any longer. Something else owns them entirely. They have no control over their lives. They are addicts. Addiction is not a bad habit exercised frequently; it is a disease. The addiction OWNS the addict. He does not own himself or herself any longer.

Addictions come in many forms: drugs, alcohol, gambling, nicotine, sexual addictions, food, etc. We become addicts usually due to a profound void, or some major trauma or pressure in life. Sometimes it begins with fun and entertainment, but soon the innocent fun lover has become a slave to his or her addiction.


Someone, who has an alcohol and gambling addiction, once shared with me what prompted him into recovery. He was in Atlantic City in a casino gambling away his fortune. It was late afternoon, he was drinking wine and gambling. A man approached him and said: Do you know it’s Yom Kippur today?!

He suddenly realized that it was the time for the Neilah prayer, the fifth and final holiest service of the holiest day of the year. This gave him a sudden clarity that he was powerless over his gambling habit. It catapulted him to seek help.

That is why the first step of the 12-step program for recovery is: “We admitted we were powerless over our addiction—that our lives had become unmanageable.” The first step toward liberation is to realize you are a slave; you really do not own yourself any longer. You have been sold.

The Role of a Father

Comes the Torah and tells us that it is our responsibility and privilege to help and redeem the addict, the slave, from his incarceration. The brother, the uncle, the cousin, or any relative must not spare money, time, and effort to help the addict set himself or herself free.

Yet the Torah neglects to mention the possibility of his father being the redeemer. Because if he had a father—a true father, a father who would have been there for his son in the way the father is supposed to be—this would have not come about.

We are not referring only to a biological father, but to an emotionally present father. A father is not only someone who gives his child food and shelter and takes him to his first baseball game. A father is not only the one who is responsible to pay the bills. That is, of course, part of fatherhood. But it is not the essence of the father.

What is a father? A father is the one who gives inner confidence to his children. The father, if he lives up to his calling, imbues in his children the conviction that they are great human beings, who can stand up to any challenge they encounter on the winding journey called life and live life to the fullest. Father is the one who empowers his children to know the depth of their dignity, the power of their souls, and the ability to forge their destiny successfully.

This is not a blame game. Sometimes the father tried hard and really meant well. He may have simply not had the tools to be there for his child in the way the child needed it, to provide him/her with the attachment the child desperately craved. Maybe the father never had a father to mentor him. Sometimes the father fulfilled his duty, but other circumstances have traumatized the child. Some fathers are incredible role models and leaders, but a perpetrator has laid waste to the brain of the child.

Yet, the Torah is saying, the full emotional presence of a father (and of course a mother) achieves miracles--and it is never too late to be a father, because, at any and every age, we all need a loving and empowering father.

Joseph did not lose his dignity and did not sell his soul to Potifar's wife because "he saw the visage of his father." He felt the presence of a father who believed in him even when he did not believe in himself. Never underestimate the power of a parent's deep and unwavering attachment, even if a situation seems dismal. Trauma is the absence of attachment; true and attuned attachment creates miracles.

I Want a Father

I heard the following story from Rabbi Sholom Ber Lispker, spiritual leader of The Shul in Bal Harbor, Florida.

A man requested a meeting with him, during which he unraveled the following tragic story. He was married, with a teenage son in the house. Yet he grew bored with his wife, fell in love with another woman, and ultimately divorced his wife.

After the divorce, the boy remained with his father and treated the new woman who would come visit his father often very disrespectfully, blaming her for the destruction of the family unit. The child, for good reason, spoke very obnoxiously to her.

When the father proposed to her, she made a condition. She would not marry him unless his teenage son would move out of their home in Bal Harbor, Florida. She does not want to see the face of that boy again.

The father, who is extremely wealthy, called in his child. He handed him an envelope with $20,000 cash; gave him the keys to a new Ferrari; gave him a few credit cards for use, to be paid for each month by the father, and finally, he gave him keys to a beautiful flat on the ocean. The father then silently added one stipulation: Son, all of this is yours; take it and enjoy, but you can’t step foot into this house anymore… if you need me, give me a call, and I will come to visit you.

The boy took the cash, the credit cards, the keys, and threw them back at his father, and said: “I don’t want your money, your car, your houses, your richness. All I want is a FATHER!”

Now, he was coming to Rabbi Lispker, to ask him what to do.

This is the tragedy of a father who never had the time or the courage to communicate to his child that one feeling: I am here for you. All of me, all of the time; I believe in you. You are truly awesome. You are a gift from G-d and I love you and remain proud of you.

A father is the one who communicates to his child the message the Baal Shem Tov’s father, Rabbi Eliezer, shared with his five-year-old son before he died: “You need not fear anyone or anything in this world, but G-d.”

Dad, Where Are You?

This is why there is no mention of the father in the process of redeeming the addicted slave. Had this addict had a "father," or had the child had the ability to feel and experience his father, he would not find himself in his current situation. The reason a child can become such a tragic slave is that he did not have a presence in his life who taught him about his Divine inner strengths, powers, and majesty. The greatest tragedy, said hassidic master Rabbi Aharon of Karlin, is when a person forgets that he is a prince, a child of G-d.

If you believe you are a prince, you can withstand the greatest temptations; if you think you are valueless, the smallest temptations can drive you to the abyss.

Or perhaps he had a father who gave it all. But the child was so hurt that he shut out his father, he can't even feel his father. Which only means that the father must never take it personally, and maintain an even stronger attachment.

In the End, It’s Up To You

We can now appreciate why the Torah leaves the option of the slave redeeming himself for the last because in his current situation he is incapable of freeing himself. He is powerless.

But we must help him go free. The addict is powerless over his problem, hence his closest family members are commanded to come to his rescue; brothers, uncles, cousins, or any relative.

But ultimately they are only catalysts. They cannot solve his problem; they can only help him see his own situation with clarity. They can give him the support he needs to HELP HIMSELF. If he does not make the decision to set himself free from the shackles of addiction, nothing can save him.

This, then, is why the Torah lists the enslaved person as the final prospect; his family can help him realize his problem and provide adequate support, but ultimately only he holds the key to his freedom. In the end, the addict himself or herself must find the resources to go free.

The Source of Freedom

But CAN the addict free himself? How can he or she liberate themselves from their addiction or any other situation which seems to be all-powerful?

Comes the Torah and concludes:

וְאִם-לֹא יִגָּאֵל, בְּאֵלֶּה--וְיָצָא בִּשְׁנַת הַיֹּבֵל, הוּא וּבָנָיו עִמּוֹ. כִּי-לִי בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, עֲבָדִים--עֲבָדַי הֵם, אֲשֶׁר-הוֹצֵאתִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם: אֲנִי, ה' אֱלֹקיכֶם.

On Jubilee, he will automatically go free. He and his children with him. Because the children of Israel are servants to ME, they are My servants; I have taken them out of Egypt.

Here is where the Torah reveals the true source of our freedom. How can the slave automatically be freed on the Jubilee year? The answer is: “the children of Israel are servants to ME, they are My servants.” We have only one master, G-d, and any subsequent sale to another master is merely superficial; it’s not a real sale.

In the words of Rashi: “Shtari Kodem.” G-d says, “My contract precedes your contract.” The divine contract proclaiming that He owns each of us precedes the contract of the slave owner. I may sign a contract with you for my house, but there is one problem: someone else has a previous contract!

I may sell my soul to addiction; I may sell my mind, heart, and schedule to addiction. But before all of the addiction began, my soul already belonged to G-d. On my deepest level, I am Divine. I am not an addict. I am a mirror of infinity, a fragment of G-d. My addiction may be powerful but it cannot penetrate the essence of my being. My being belongs to G-d. There is a core self, sacred and wholesome, which is more powerful than all my trauma, abuse, and addiction.

All the addictions and desires that control me are ultimately external. Each and every one of us has only one true allegiance: Our oneness with the Infinite One. Thus, in the end, a “jubilee” will come and set us free.

The Camel

A mother and a baby camel were lying around, and suddenly the baby camel asked, “mother, may I ask you some questions?”

Mother said, “Sure! Why son, is there something bothering you?”

Baby said, “Why do camels have humps?”

Mother said, “Well son, we are desert animals, we need the humps to store water and we are known to survive for weeks without water.”

Baby said, “Okay, then why are our legs long and our feet rounded?”

Mother said, “Son, obviously they are meant for walking in the desert. You know with these legs I can move around the desert better than anyone does!”

Baby said, “Okay, then why are our eyelashes long? Sometimes it bothers my sight.”

Mother with pride said, “My son, those long thick eyelashes are your protective cover. They help to protect your eyes from the desert sand and wind as you trek hundreds of miles.”

The Baby, after thinking, said, “I see. So the hump is to store water when we are in the desert, the legs are for walking through the desert, and these eyelashes protect my eyes from the desert. If so, what in heaven’s name are we doing here in a cage in the Bronx Zoo?!”

We were not made to be locked in a cage. We were meant to be free. G-d’s contract precedes every other “contract” you might make in life, including those in which you sell yourself to the tyrants of addiction.

Yogi Berra

In 1973 the New York Mets struggled in last place in the National League Eastern division midway through the season. The team’s colorful manager, the legendary Yogi Berra, had done wonders in the past, leading the team to its first-ever World Series championship in 1969, but this season looked to most observers like a wash. Asked by a sports reporter for one of the New York papers if the season was over for the Mets, Yogi responded with what has become one of his most famous “Yogi-isms,” a declaration that put an exclamation point on what was to be one of the most exciting comebacks in sports history: “It Ain’t Over ’Til It’s Over!”

As history shows, it indeed wasn’t over. Yogi Berra’s New York Mets went on to take the National League East division and capped off the season by winning the National League Pennant and going to their second World Series contest.

In your life “it ain’t over” until G-d says it’s over—and G-d says it’s not over until you win. Your moral and spiritual victory is guaranteed, because “My contract precedes any other.”[9]


[1] Obviously, the sale had to reflect this fact. If Jubilee was close, the price was less.

[2] According to Torah law, Jews observed two special years Shmita (Hebrew: שמיטה‎, literally "release"), and Yovel, or Jubilee. 14 years after the Jews entered the land of Israel and finished conquering and dividing the land, they began counting every seventh year. The seventh year of the cycle was called shmitah, during that year the land is left to lie fallow. All agricultural activity—including plowing, planting, pruning and harvesting—is forbidden by Torah law. Other cultivation techniques—such as watering, fertilizing, weeding, spraying, trimming and mowing—may be performed as a preventative measure only, not to improve the growth of trees or plants. Additionally, any fruits which grow of their own accord are deemed hefker (ownerless) and may be picked by anyone.

After seven shmitos, 49 years, comes the 50th year known as Yovel or Jubilee. This year has all of the laws of a regular shmitah year, plus all slaves are set free and all fields sols are returned to their ancestral owner.

[3] According to Jewish law, only a man can sell himself as a slave, never a woman.

[4] Though his children were not sold into slavery, the master is obligated to support them throughout the ordeal (Rashi). Hence in a sense, they too are under his authority.

[5] This is referring to a situation where the non-Jew is living in the Holy Land under the jurisdiction of a Jewish State, and hence is obliged by the Torah law.

[6] In the case where the son is supporting his father, we can assume that if he didn't help his father out and allowed him to sell himself into slavery he probably won't redeem him. If he sold him once, he will sell him twice. But a father on the other hand, even if he sat by idly and let his son be sold into slavery, once he sees him in slavery, his fatherly love - which is a lot stronger than a son's love to his father- is aroused and surely he would make the effort to redeem him. Yet, the Torah chooses not to mention that option.

[7] According to Jewish law, if there is a father with means, he has the first responsibility to set his son free since he is closest in kin. Which only exacerbates the previous question of why the Torah omits the mention of a father.

[8] One possible answer is that according to natural circumstances, it is the most unlikely that the slave himself will find the means to set himself free. For if he would have any money he would not be forced to sell himself for the sake of money. Hence the Torah gives that option last since it is the most unusual.

[9] This essay is based on a talk delivered by the Lubavitcher Rebbe on Shabbos Parshas Behar 5723, 1963. Published in Likkutei Sichos vol. 17 Parshas Behar.