Rebbetzin Heshelis, the author of The Moon's Lost Light offers this exploration of the fact that the Torah does not completely prohibit slavery, although it has laws regarding the proper treatment of Jewish and non-Jewish slaves. I cannot say her explanation will satisfy everyone, but it is a brave effort to tackle a subject which is difficult especially to modern people. Hopefully, in upcoming weeks she will offer an explanation for why Hashem's hashgacha has decreed in the last century that there should be a worldwide revulsion to the idea of slavery among all civilized nations. That, I think, is also a fascinating question, one which I think Rav Kook addresses in Oros Hatorah, which Rav Weinberger spoke on in Friday's shiur.
The Torah's Attitude Toward Slavery
Rebbetzin Devorah Heshelis
In parshas No'ach, we are told that No'ach cursed his grandson Cna'an, saying that he would be a slave to his brothers. In the next week's parsha, Lech Licho, we find that Avraham Avinu, who represents the very embodiment of kindness, had slaves. His wife, Sarah, his partner in kindness who's virtue in Hashem's eyes led her to great heights of prophecy, also had a slave woman, Hagar, with Avraham's approval. And when learning the laws of the Torah we see that they clearly permit slavery.
Yet isn't slavery the exact opposite of viahavta lire'acho kamocha, which Rabbi Akiva said is the great rule of the Torah? We wouldn't want to be made slaves, so how could we do this to other people? Isn't slavery the opposite of kindness and love for fellow human beings? Why, then, does the Torah permit, and even encourage it?
The answer is that there are two types of slavery. There is the slavery that was common throughout most of world history, which was pure selfishness, seeing others as existing for one's own benefit, and hurting them without compunction. This is the type of slavery that existed in Egypt, and from this the Jewish People had to learn how not to be.
But there is also another type of slavery, which exists primarily for the benefit of the slave, and only incidentally for the benefit of the master. To understand how this is so, we have to first understand the Torah's concept of a (permitted) slave.
A slave is someone who cannot or will not control their passions, and so must be under the control of someone else who will control it for them. This way they are prevented from hurting themselves and others, and they can become a worthwhile and beneficial member of society, which would otherwise not be possible.
Although slavery existed before the flood, it was of the evil type, where the strong oppresses the weak. The first time we find the permitted type of slavery is in the case of No'ach and his grandson Cna'an. The Torah tells us that after the flood Noach planted a vineyard, become drunk from the wine and became uncovered in his tent. No'ach's son Cham, told this to his brothers Shem and Yefet outside, who then covered their father with their faces turned backwards. When No'ach woke up he knew what his smallest son had done to him, and No'ach said, "Cursed is Can'an" making him into a slave to his brothers Shem and Yefet.
The meaning of the story is unclear. If Cham sinned, why should his son Cna'an be the one to be punished? And what exactly was Cham's sin?
The sages explain that Cna'an was the one who first saw his grandfather No'ach uncovered and then told this to his father, Cham. Cham then went and castrated his father, in order to prevent him from having a fourth son, who would compete with the others in the inheritance of the world. He also sodomized his father. Yet it is Cna'an, and not Cham that No'ach said was cursed. Why?
The sages explain that it was impossible for Cham to be cursed, because Hashem blessed all of No'ach's sons after they left the ark, and one who is blessed by Hashem cannot be cursed. (This, of course, does not mean that Cham was not punished for his evil deeds, but it was not in this way.)
But one can also see from here the terrible effects of lashon hara. Although Cham was the one who actually committed the criminal acts against his father, the cause of it all was Cna'an, who, by speaking lashon hara about No'ach to his father, brought all this about. At any rate, Cna'an shared his father's raw nature and was a partner to the act.
But what does all this have to do specifically with slavery? Rav Shamshon Rafael Hirsch points out that it was not that No'ach cursed Cna'an, but rather that No'ach recognized that Cna'an was spiritually cursed in that he had untamed and uncontrolled passions, and so he made him a slave to Shem and Yefet, who were on a higher level, and would control his evil impulses.
What actually happened to Cna'an? Chazal say that he became Eliezer, the slave of Avraham Avinu! Eliezer was a very great person. Chazal tell us that he drew from the Torah of Avraham and taught this to others. He learned so much from Avraham, and copied his behavior so well, that his face actually came to look like Avraham's face! This is very significant because a person's character is written on their face. And before Avraham had children he thought that Eliezer would be his heir. The greatness of Eliezer is so recognized that it became a common Jewish name, and great rabbis were named Eliezer.
Yet Eliezer needed to be a slave because his greatness came from the fact that he was not independent. On his own, he never would have made it. However, as time went on he grew more and more spiritual to the point where Avraham Avinu put such faith in him that he sent him to find a proper wife for Yitzchok and bring her back, which he did very faithfully. On this trip he was completely independent with no one checking on him, and he could have easily given in to the yetzer hara, but he did not. When Avraham saw this, he freed Eliezer.
The Sfas Emes in parshas Chayey Sarah says that Chazal warned people not to free an eved Can'ani since this would cause harm both to society and to the eved himself, who would then run amuck, not functioning responsibly. However, says, the Sfas Emes, this was said regarding the usual type of slave. If, however, the master sees that this particular slave can function properly as an independent person, he should be freed, as Avraham freed Eliezer.
Next week, we will IY"H discuss Sarah and Hagar.