Among the many laws of social conduct, the Torah includes guidelines on the treatment of indentured servants. A pattern that emerges from these instructions is to place great importance on preserving the respect and dignity of the worker.

One of the laws regulating the treatment of such servants is detailed in Leviticus 25:43: “Do not subjugate him with hard labor.” In defining “hard labor,” the commentator Rashi explains that the employer is not permitted to say to his servant, “Warm up this cup for me” when he (the master) does not really need it. Even if the servant is unaware that the drink is not needed, it is still considered an instruction which is demeaning and disrespectful.1

But isn’t this a little extreme? It is perfectly legitimate for a servant to make his master a cup of tea. Why, then, if unbeknownst to the worker the employer doesn’t really want the cup, is it considered such an insult and an affront to his dignity?Often we feel that we have a license to behave as we wish, as long as we don’t hurt anyone else

The answer is linked to the very purpose and definition of generous, moral and ethical behavior. Often we feel that we have a license to behave as we wish, as long as we don’t hurt anyone else. But this is a great error, because the purpose and benefit of appropriate behavior is as much for us as it is for others. We have a responsibility not only to help others and protect their dignity, but also to ensure that we refine and develop a sensitive, compassionate and respectful identity for ourselves. When we ask a worker to do a senseless task, he might not be hurt—but we will damage our own character. It will plant seeds of insensitivity and cruelty within our own personality.

Being careful how we treat others helps them and also strengthens ourselves, making us better and more refined human beings.