It’s a law that catches you off-guard: is a Jew in Eretz Yisrael really permitted to sell himself to a wealthy non-Jew when he falls on hard financial times? What about the spiritual dangers? The law covers that part, too.

If your brother becomes destitute… and is sold to a resident non-Jew…” (Vayikra 25:47)

This scenario from Parshas Behar is not only a surprise in itself, but it encompasses a timely moral lesson as well. Picture an impoverished Jew, dumped from the wheel of fortune at its nadir, being led away to the home of a wealthy non-Jew who has just purchased him as a slave.

This image doesn’t come from the archives of our painful, oppressive exiles. It is from our days as a Jewish country governed by halachah — from Biblical times. It depicts a situation that could come up at a time when Am Yisrael has full sovereignty in their own land. It shows us clearly that a non-Jewish resident of Eretz Yisrael could, within the parameters of Torah law, become the lord and master of a Jew, a member of the ruling majority.

The pesukim explain: “If a resident non-Jew gains wealth with you, and your brother becomes destitute with him and is sold to a resident non-Jew among you or to an idol of the family of a non-Jew, after he is sold, he shall have redemption; one of his brothers shall redeem him… He shall calculate with his purchaser [the number of years] from the year of his being sold to him until the Jubilee year…” (ibid. 47–50). The passage is clearly speaking of an optimal period in our people’s history, at a time when the whole Jewish nation is living in its ancestral land, each man under his grapevine and his fig tree; a time when the Beis HaMikdash stands tall over the hills of Yerushalayim; a time when Torah law holds sway without restrictions and shapes the life of the nation; a time when Jewish sovereignty is an object of the other nations’ respect and admiration. None of the present-day fear of “what will the world say” exists in such a time. And of course, all non-Jews residing in Eretz Yisrael at such a time are subject to its religious legal system.

And this legal system allows a non-Jew to use his money to purchase a slave from among the Jews who have fallen into poverty. This is liberalism at its height (and it was laid down as law at a time when in most lands, foreigners had no rights at all).

However, the Torah also hints that it is not pleased with the turn of events mentioned in our passage. Although a non-Jew may purchase an eved Ivri, the Torah expresses concern for the spiritual fate of the Jewish slave forced to live on a non-Jew’s estate, in a pasuk that seems out of place in a chapter dealing with matters of money and ownership rights, of helping the poor and redeeming slaves: “You shall not make idols for yourselves… to prostrate yourselves” (ibid. 26:1).

What is the prohibition of avodah zarah doing here? Hasn’t it been made clear enough in other passages that deal directly with this subject? Why is it inserted here among halachos pertaining to the purchase of a Jewish slave by a non-Jew? But in fact, the jarring pasuk very much belongs here. Since the passage describes a scenario of a non-Jew bringing home a Jewish slave, it is most fitting that the Torah should immediately remind that slave of the terrible spiritual danger he faces in the home of his new master:

“This is addressed to the person sold to the non-Jew, that he should not say, ‘Since my master engages in illicit relations, so may I. Since my master serves foreign gods, so may I. Since my master desecrates Shabbos, so may I.’ For this purpose these verses are stated here.” (Rashi, quoting the Midrash)

What are the implications? In a state governed by Torah, where halachah holds full sway over the lives of all its citizens, a non-Jew can live in Eretz Yisrael undisturbed, engage in business with the same economic freedom as a Jew, become wealthy, and even purchase Jewish slaves to serve him. This right of purchase, let us remember, goes against the interests of our own people by permitting a Jew to put himself in a compromised environment.

Yet, despite the tangible danger to his soul as he sells himself into slavery, the Torah does not step in forcibly to nullify the purchase. It is the non-Jew’s right to spend his money as he wishes that is protected by law. In the Biblical Jewish state, the rights of foreign residents are safeguarded.

This is a far cry from the lurid images of a Khomeini-like leadership conjured up in the minds of many secular Jews in their fear of a “chareidi takeover.” But this economic liberalism does not stem from indifference to the fate of the Jewish slave on the part of the Torah. On the contrary, the parshah wields all of its spiritual authority to arouse the slave’s fellow Jews to speedy action. It demands that they make supreme efforts to rescue the purchased Jew from the non-Jewish buyer, and specifies the means to be employed:

“After he is sold, he shall have redemption” (ibid. 25:47).

The Gemara teaches us the implication of the pasuk: “[The redeemer] cannot simply take him and go” (Bava Kama 113b). Rashi further explains, “The beis din can take him out of the non-Jew’s possession only by redemption.”

The Torah first of all warns the people against the temptation to take care of the problem the easy way — the way employed by nearly all majority regimes in their respective lands; that is, to use police power or magistrate’s orders to impose the will of the majority on the foreign ethnic minority. The pasuk makes it emphatically clear that these are not the means by which the legitimately purchased slave is to be freed. The judicial system will not be used to prevent such purchases, nor to invalidate them. Rather, his release is to be negotiated through full repayment of the purchase price to the buyer. Collect money, says the pasuk, and pay the non-Jew the sum owed to him. Do it quickly, before the Jewish slave’s moral stature is diminished by the influence of his master’s lifestyle.

But, continues the pasuk, all the urgency notwithstanding, and despite your fervor to perform the mitzvah of pidyon shevuyim, remember that the Torah requires you to act with honesty and integrity — remember it especially now, since a member of the majority usually has few compunctions about cheating a member of the minority. And therefore, the Torah says with equal emphasis:

“He shall calculate with his purchaser [the number of years] from the year of his being sold to him until the Jubilee year…” (ibid. 50). What is the Torah doing here? Don’t we know the importance of an accurate accounting of the money changing hands in a business transaction? Is it teaching us basic rules of commerce? Since when does the Torah waste words telling us what is obvious?

Since the Torah never wastes words on the obvious, our Sages understood these words as follows: “And thus it is forbidden to deceive the non-Jew with false calculation, but rather one must be scrupulously accurate, as is said, ‘He shall calculate with the purchaser,’ even though he is subject to your rule… this comes under the category of, ‘For anyone who does these things is an abomination to Hashem, your G-d.’ That is, anyone who does wrong in any situation” (Rambam, Hilchos Geneivah 7:8). That is, do not bypass the foreigner, do not deceive him or cheat him. Do not assume an attitude of superiority when dealing with him, but act with fairness and decency. Do not impose extra fees on him in the guise of some law tailor-made to overcome the problem at hand. Simply pay him the full sum owed to him, and be scrupulous about it.

This is the message nestled between lines in a text that prescribes the way of life for our people in its land, that sets out the ethical priorities for business life in a Biblical, halachically governed nation, and how we are to treat the foreigner who lives among us.