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Parashat Behar: The Desire for Control

The Torah in Parashat Behar presents the law of Yobel, the jubilee year, when all servants were set free. A Jew who sold himself as a servant was offered to be released after six years of service, but if he preferred remaining with his master, he was allowed to continue serving until the Yobel, at which point all servants were set free.

The onset of the jubilee year would be announced on Yom Kippur, with the sounding of the Shofar throughout the land. The Sefer Ha’hinuch writes that the release of servants was announced specifically on Yom Kippur because that is the day of repentance and introspection, when people are most inclined to do the right thing. If there is one day a year when people feel inspired and motivated to obey G-d’s commands and avoid wrongdoing, it is Yom Kippur. And thus the Torah, knowing how difficult it is for masters to release their servants, instituted that the announcement be made on Yom Kippur, when the people are most drawn toward compliance and obedience, and most willing to make sacrifices to fulfill their obligations to G-d.

Historically, we know that this was indeed a very difficult challenge for the Jewish people. We read in the Book of Yirmiyahu that the prophet admonished the people to comply with the Torah’s command and release their servants, and they obeyed his instructions. Shortly thereafter, however, they changed their minds and brought their servants back under their control. They couldn’t bring themselves to continue living without the assistance of servants.

Why is this such a difficult Misva to observe? What made it so tempting for the people to keep their servants in defiance of the Torah?

The answer lies in the innate human desire for control, to exert authority over other people. Very few people could realistically aspire to formal positions of power, so they sought to satisfy this craving by having servants under their control. This is simply a function of human nature; we were created with this innate drive to control other people. The law of Yobel was instituted to rein in on this tendency, and to help temper the drive for control. It establishes that although it is acceptable to have servants under one’s authority, this control must be limited, and after six years – or at least on the jubilee – the servants must be released.

This Misva conveys a very vital lesson even nowadays, when we do not have servants. The desire to exert control is the cause of many problems in relationships. Marriages are strained when a spouse seeks to exert control over the other, and children rebel when parents try to be too controlling. In friendships and professional relationships, too, the desire for control can prove very destructive and ruin an otherwise fruitful and beneficial relationship. The Misva of Yobel teaches us to give others their space and overcome the natural desire for control. We should not be trying to mold our spouse, children, friends, neighbors and associates into precisely the kind of people we want them to be. We need to learn to let go, to let people be a bit different from us, and be tolerant and accepting. Full control over people belongs only in the hands of the Almighty, and we must never make the mistake of trying to usurp His exclusive position of authority.

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