Choosing Slavery (Mishpatim)
Slaves lose everything in their chains, even the desire of escaping from them. -Jean Jacques Rousseau
The Jewish nation has escaped from the slavery of Egypt, they crossed the Sea, received the Ten Commandments. Now, one of the first commands after the pyrotechnic divine Revelation on Mount Sinai is the laws of…slavery.
The Jews had felt the whip of the slave-master on their backs. Slavery was extremely fresh in their memories. Just a few months prior they had been considered the property of Egypt.
God introduces to the world an entirely different concept of “slavery.” It is a temporary condition. A Jewish man, out of luck and resources (typically because he stole something and then couldn’t repay), becomes an indentured servant for six years. He must be treated well and cared for. He must have a quality of life equal to that of his master. However, if he becomes comfortable with his servitude and his master, he can request to stay on longer. The Torah prescribes that in such a case the master takes this slave to the doorpost and pierces the slave’s ear by the doorpost, marking him, branding him as a slave until the Jubilee year, when all slaves are freed, all men of Israel reclaim their ancestral lands.
Rabbeinu Bechaye on Exodus 21:6 (Mishpatim) explains the rationale for the ear-piercing ceremony, as that namely a Jew should know better than to choose slavery, no matter how comfortable it may be. God took us out of the chains of Egypt to serve Him, not to serve human masters. The ear that heard God’s commands and disobeyed them will be pierced by the new master he’s chosen for himself. By piercing the slave’s ear, the master is following God’s command and demonstrating that at least the master is exclusively subservient to God and not to man. This was a fundamental principle, the principle of personal freedom and subservience only to God, which the slave was disregarding. Man is meant to live free and not be the slave of any other human being. It may seem ironic, but the Torah transmits the message that by serving God exclusively we thereby gain freedom from human domination. There is only one Master – God. Therein we can find our freedom.
May we choose who and what we serve wisely.
To the memory of Marvin Rosen of Teaneck, NJ. I spent many special Shabbats at his home and at his table. May his family be consoled among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.