14 Feb

In his Davar on the Portion of Mishpatim, entitled “The Lessons of Remembering When We Were Slaves” as part of the Shavua Tov from Schechter email series, Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz references the legalization of limited servitude (which we might recognize in our day as domestic employment, to be regulated and compensated humanely). He lifts up the Biblical dictum about how a Hebrew slave will serve six years, “and in the seventh year, he will go out free for nothing” (Exodus 21:2), and then continues, “What if the slave, however, refuses to go free? Torah expounds on a most curious ritual in such a situation: “And if the servant will say, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go free.’ Then his master will bring him before the judges, he will bring him to the door or the doorpost; and his master will bore his ear through with an awl” (Exodus 21:5).

How are we to understand the symbolism of this act?          The Babylonian Talmud, (Tractate Kiddushin 22b) offers one compelling explanation: Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai expounds this verse in a symbolic way. Why was the ear singled out from other parts of the body? Because God said, “The ear heard My voice on Mount Sinai when I proclaimed, for unto Me the children of Israel are servants; they are My servants’ (Leviticus 25:55) and not servants of servants. Yet, this man has gone and acquired a master for himself. Let his ear be bored through!”

While one would surely expect a slave to embrace freedom, these verses of Torah and their subsequent explanation speak to a profound reality. Slavery, though oppressive, can also be a strangely comforting and a certain state of affairs. One’s needs may be tended to, and the prospect of freedom may truly be overwhelming. Despite all of the uncertainty and potential pitfalls, Torah urges us all to embrace freedom. One who ignores this mitzvah also diminishes the Voice of God.

My Two Cents
Yeah - freedom is a hard pill to swallow … it entails ownership of such lofty concepts as discretion, responsibility, accountability. These were not easy for a people that were recently freed from servitude, nor are they easy, on so many levels, for us today. We are quick to point fingers, to make excuses for human fault when impulsiveness and unrefined passions reside at our very doorstep. Scripture is laying before us an eloquent case for our souls to prevail over our bodies in the name of liberty. Are we equal to this task?

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