Rabbi Sol Tanenzapf noted that the Torah did not end slavery but it did transform the institution. In the ancient world a slave was chattel: property that could be bought or sold and whose very life was in the hands of a master. Scriptural law, however, limited slavery (better, indentured servitude) to no more than six years (Exodus 21:2-11). Slaves could not be beaten. Scriptural law required setting the slave free immediately should the master physically abuse him (Ex. 21:26-27). In fact, the Torah imagines that life might be so comfortable for the slave that he might not want to go free! Yet even those slaves who chose to remain slaves after their period of servitude elapsed and have their ears pierced as a mark of shame (Exodus 21:5-6) had to go free on the Jubilee Year when the Shofar was blown to signal their emancipation (Leviticus 25:10).
We can only imagine what it might have been like to be an emancipated slave in Biblical times. No doubt for some it represented a new beginning to be anticipated with delight. For others, it may have been a bittersweet time when happy bonds needed to be severed. But either way, the Jubilee Year was a pivotal moment for all slaves.
In this light, Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky raises in interesting question. The Torah says: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land for all the inhabitants” (Leviticus 25:10). But why is liberty proclaimed for all the inhabitants? Slaves and indentured servants are freed. They benefit from liberty. But masters are inhabitants of the land as well. How does liberty serve them? They are already free! Rabbis rarely pose a question unless they already have an answer. The answer that Rabbi Kamenetzky gives is that when a slave goes free so does his master. Masters have responsibilities towards those in their care. Masters are responsible for the welfare of their slaves: their food, shelter, maintenance and wellbeing. Masters must provide their servants with decent working conditions. All of this comes with a cost and a mandate. Thus, when the Jubilee Year arrives a burden is lifted from the shoulders of the masters. Masters too are freed. And so, appropriately, the Torah describes the Jubilee Year as a time of liberty for all inhabitants.
Aside from providing an insight into the text, Rabbi Kamenetzky also forces us to look at what it means to be employers or teachers or any task that puts us in a position of power over others. With that power comes responsibility. And until such time that the relationship ends, that responsibility must be fulfilled.