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Aide Avdayim Behar

In the curse of Ham, Canaan is cursed to be slave to slaves. In Leviticus, the Israelites are called slaves to God and the Israelites are allowed to have Canaanite slaves. The parallel part of Leviticus to these laws of slavery includes the episode of Nadav and Avihu bringing in foreign incense and being consumed by fire in the Mishkan. Afterwards comes the law against alcohol for priests. Both this episode and the episode of slavery connect to Parashat Noach. In Noach, Noach gets drunk and naked in his tent, and his son Ham walks in on him. As a punishment (many commentators read much more into the story than this), Ham’s youngest son Canaan is cursed to be a slave to slaves, and specifically, a slave to his brother Shem, progenitor of, among others, Avraham and thus Israel. After Ham had walked in on Noah, he told his brothers and they covered their fathers with a blanket with respect and deference. This is similar to Aaron’s other sons taking out the dead bodies from the Mishkan. Both are situations of restoring the proper situation to a place where somebody's presence, somebody’s separateness, their Kedushah, was violated. Both of these situations parallel what will occur with Israel once it occupies the Promised Land. The Land is “spitting out” its current inhabitants, the Canaanites, because they violated the sanctity of that place, like Nadav and Avihu and like Ham. Just as Noah’s sons serve him, just as the Kohanim are supposed to serve God in the Mishkan, so Israel are supposed to be avadim to God - servants or slaves to God. Thus, Israel belongs to God, and cannot really be owned. Thus, Israelite slaves must be freed on the Yovel. The Canaanites, however, did not submit themselves to God’s authority, did not become servants of God. Thus, they are ownerless, and can be owned. But still, this conflicts with the modern sense that each person owns themselves. Let me, then, suggest something to ease my conscience. Today we think of freedom in terms of owning oneself, and more precisely one’s time and property. Prisoners do not have freedom because they do not determine what to do with their time and are not in charge of their property. Americans, we like to think, do have freedom, because we can do what we want with our time and our stuff. In Behar, Israel is informed that the land they will come to reside in is not really theirs - they don’t have freedom to do whatever they want with it. They also don’t own their time - they are on God’s clock because God is their master, they are essentially slaves to God. These recognitions of lack of ownership over space and time come in the form of the Shabbatot, i.e. Shabbat itself, Shmitah, and Yovel. We refrain from working the land in this time out of recognition that these things are not truly ours, they are God’s. We modern folk might say that the Israelites then have a lack of freedom. I think it is the opposite. When one does not recognize that their property and time truly belongs to God, and they have the impression that it is their own, they become a slave to their impulses. They figure that they are the ends, and their life should be the means to serving that end, themselves. The goal is determined by what they are feeling in the moment, not a timeless law like the Torah. In the Noach story, Ham does not act with respect towards his father, does not respect his boundaries, because he feels he can do whatever he wants, so his descendants through Canaan are brought lower by being forced to serve his brothers. With Nadav and Avihu, they acted based on their impulses, not God’s laws about the Mishkan service, and so they could not function in their roles as Kohanim, servants of God in the Mishkan. So the Canaanites, who do not act with respect to God by violating His Holy Land by acting out of impulse and desire, are brought low by being serving a people who themselves are in service to God. The basic principle is: you don’t serve who you should be serving, so you are now lower than your peers who do. Your brothers who serve their father, you shall now serve them. Your brothers who serve God in the Mishkan, you now are dead and impure, they maintain their service. The Canaanites who do not serve God, they now serve Israel, who does serve God. Really, what I think the Torah is saying in our generation is that impulses are not freedom but slavery. Servitude towards God is actually freedom, demonstrated by Yovel, which is, according to the Maharal, a freedom from the yetzer HaRa, the evil impulse. So, when we act according to our impulses, this is not freedom. When we try to regulate our impulses to be in line with the Divine will and sanctity of space and time, then we achieve true freedom. We are no longer captive to the Yetzer HaRa. Rav Kook speaks of Yovel as a historical, repeating process which will lead to the ultimate shedding of the Yetzer HaRa in the time of Mashiach. I believe he is envisioning a time in which all people are servants of God, there would be no slavery of Canaan to Israel as even those in Canaan have overcome the Yetzer HaRa.

With regards to the fact that Canaan is punished for his father Ham’s sin, I think this bears some resemblance to the fact that the sons of Canaanite women and foreign fathers can be subjected to slavery. God had already blessed Ham, he couldn’t be cursed, but his youngest son could. God had already told the Israelites to wipe out the Canaanites, but the remnant of them could be enslaved. I am in no way endorsing slavery. I think it is terrible. I think in our time, we can learn from this that what we think (the Western conception - the conception of the non-Israelite nations) of as freedom is really slavery, while what we think of as slavery to God is really true freedom. We are still servants, but servants of the Creator of the universe who freed us in Egypt.

Interestingly, Rav Kook talks about vegetarianism being the ideal in Messianic times. He believed that the Torah’s rules attempt to wean humans off of meat. The desire for meat is very much a carnal expression of the Yetzer HaRa. This goes back to Noach, when God made a concession to this desire and allowed humans to eat meat. Originally, ideally, they would not. This idea that the yetzer HaRa took us out of our original blissful state is what the Gan Eden story is centered around. Thus, presumably, overcoming the Yetzer HaRa returns us to that blissful state of freedom/servitude of God. Maybe the very allowance of slaves, but not Israelite ones, was a compromise God made to try to wean Israel off of slavery, a practice ubiquitous in that time. You must create the ideal world of brotherly harmony in Israel, though for now you can give in slightly to the bad desire to dominate other humans.

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