I grew up, as I imagine most of you did, believing in the basic principles of democracy. My parents and grandparents deeply appreciated the freedoms that they experienced in the United States. My mother especially raised me to cherish the values of our country.
Among the beliefs which I firmly held from as far back as I can remember was the conviction that slavery is evil. I remember being asked by my fourth grade teacher to write a composition about Abraham Lincoln’s statement, “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.”
When I looked up this quotation in preparation for this column, I found that Lincoln continued to say, “This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.”
My lifelong belief in the illegitimacy of slavery has been continually tested by the fact that our Torah recognizes a place for slavery in our society. The slave takes such a central place in our halachic system that Maimonides devotes an entire section of his code of law to the laws of slaves.
It is comforting to those of us for whom slavery is repugnant to learn that the institution of slavery within Jewish law and practice has been obsolete for many centuries.
However, slavery as an institution and slaves as individuals play a major role in the stories of the Bible. For instance, in this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, we read of Abraham’s slave and of the important mission upon which he was sent, the mission to find a suitable wife for Abraham’s son, Isaac.
This slave proves to be quite persistent and ingenious. He may be a slave, but he is not slavish. He is successful in his mission, and he brings back a bride, Rebecca, for Isaac.
The Torah tells us this slave’s story at great length. Indeed, our rabbis wonder why this story is told over dozens of verses, whereas there are only brief phrases dedicated to important ritual laws.
In answer to this question, our rabbis say, “More beautiful is the conversation of the slaves of the patriarchs than is the Torah of their sons.” The narrative of this slave is in some way superior to Torah commandments.
The great Hasidic Rebbe of Gur, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter, writes in his masterwork, Sefat Emet, that he finds the above statement “wondrous.” “How can the slave,” he asks, “be superior to the son?” Rabbi Alter led his flock from the 1860s until the early twentieth century, and in his discourses on this week’s Torah portion, he returns to this theme again and again.
He begins by pointing out that there are two modes of religious worship, two types of spiritual experiences. The first mode is that of “the slave,” who obeys his Master from a distance, without really understanding Him. But this mode is a preparation for a higher one, in which the relationship is far more intimate, based upon deeper understanding.
In this manner, we all begin to worship the Almighty as slaves. And as slaves, we prepare ourselves for the next step, to worship God as His children, not as slaves.
This is the meaning, says the Sefat Emet, of the rabbinic statement, “More beautiful is the conversation of the slaves of the patriarchs than is the Torah of their sons.” More beautiful is the stage of preparation than the stage of achievement.
This approach helps us to understand how our sages can also say, “More beautiful is a moment of repentance and good deeds in this mundane world than is eternal life in the world to come.” The spiritual preparations which are only possible in this material world are in some ways superior even to the delights of paradise.
One can take this idea further and come to realize that the six days of the week, with their ordinary concerns of work and profit, are “more beautiful” than even the Sabbath itself. Without the precedent of six days of chol, the profane, we could not achieve kodesh, the hallowed; in this case, the sacred Shabbat.
There is such a profound lesson for all of us in this approach. We seek instant gratification in all of our objectives, even within the realm of spirituality. We all desire spiritual “highs.” But the reflections summarized above teach us that we must first go through a long period of servitude, of hard religious work, before we can attain the experiences of true spirituality.
Slaves of the Almighty have a place even in Abraham Lincoln’s world, even in a democratic society. We must be servants of God before we can become His children.