The Curious Case of the Slave Who Refuses Freedom

Mishpatim By :  Matthew Berkowitz Director of Israel Programs Posted On Feb 5, 2013 / 5773 | A Taste of Torah

Coming on the heels of the Revelation at Sinai, Parashat Mishpatim opens with laws concerning slaves. Most strikingly, the Torah reading addresses the release of Hebrew slaves in the seventh year of their service. But what about a curious case in which a slave refuses to leave? Torah describes the scenario: “But if the slave declares, ‘I love my master, and my wife and children: I do not wish to go free,’ his master will take him before God. He will be brought to the door or the doorpost, and his master will pierce his ear with an awl; and he will then remain his slave for life” (Exod. 21:5–6). Why does Exodus legislate a ritual regarding the piercing of an ear? The Babylonian Talmud (Kiddushin 22b) explains, “God said: The ear that heard on Sinai: ‘the children of Israel are My slaves’ (Lev. 25:55), and not slaves of slaves—and here this person went and acquired a human master for himself—let that ear be pierced!” How else may we understand this striking act?

Dr. Avivah Zornberg, author and teacher of Torah in Jerusalem, quotes the Sfat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter), writing,

Why should the ear be mutilated, since the sin is basically one of action, not of hearing? His answer places the faculty of hearing at the center of the Jewish spiritual enterprise. When the Israelites committed themselves to the Covenant, saying “We shall do and we shall hear!” they expressed a desire to go beyond the doing mode, beyond the basic requirements of the Commandments. “We shall hear!” means that they hold themselves alert to further and finer intimations of God’s will. This attitude of alertness . . . signifies an aspiration to respond at any moment to God’s will. In the case of the slave, quite possibly he feels comfortable with his master; he has achieved an equilibrium that allows him to maintain his religious life in slavery. But, insists Sfat Emet, it was not for this that Israel was created: their destiny is not a slavish, robot-like performance of prescribed acts, but a life of continuous passionate “listening” to God. (Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture, 308)

Simply stated, a slave who desires to remain in servitude has lost the ability to hear and thus to imagine a better world for himself. Perpetual servitude to masters in the material realm numbs us, making us insensitive, robotic, and simply incapable of hearing murmurings of redemption. That is the problematic essence of the Hebrew slave’s decision to remain enslaved. The essence of who we are as Hebrews is about the journey to freedom. One need look no further than the Hebrew root of the word Hebrewayin-vet-reishivri, the word for “crossing over.” Abraham is the first Hebrew, ivri. Notably, that same Hebrew root is also used in the quintessential expression for freedom, v’he’evarta shofar teruah: that “you will sound the call of the shofar” (Lev. 25:9)—a sound that symbolizes release and freedom. Jews, and indeed all of humanity, are meant to be free. Our special mission, as the Sfat Emet and Avivah Zornberg point out, is to go far beyond the routine of ritual: it is to hear, understand, and delve deeper so that we become engaged and proactive Jews. In so doing, we eschew human servitude and we come to sanctify our lives through serving our Heavenly Master, who created the world and endowed each of us with a divine image.

The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.