The Ear that Heard

Mishpatim By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Feb 25, 2006 / 5766

Parashat Mishpatim opens appropriately with laws concerning slavery. Having achieved their freedom after 400 years of bondage, the Israelites are instructed regarding the laws concerning Hebrew slaves. Why is Torah so quick to speak of these particular mitzvot at the outset of the Israelite journey? All too often, freed slaves are quick to become the oppressor. And Torah is consistently vigilant vis–à–vis this danger. The Israelites are encouraged to remember their experience and recount it to future generations; yet, at the same time, they must remember their status as strangers. From this point on, they must be keenly attuned to the powerless among them. Not surprisingly, then, Torah teaches that a Hebrew slave will serve six years, “and in the seventh year, he will go out free for nothing”(Exodus 21:2). 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!” Rabbi Simeon Berabi explained why the doorpost is singled out from other parts of the house. Because God said, “The door and the doorpost were witnesses in Egypt when I passed over the lintel …then I brought them forth from bondage to freedom, yet this man has gone and acquired a master for himself. Let his ear be bored through in the presence of the door and doorpost!”

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 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. As Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai explains, the servant who remains in servitude betrays the ear that heard the call to freedom at Sinai. So not surprisingly, the ritual transpires at the doorpost; for the servant refuses to cross the threshold to freedom — to a new mode of being.

May each of us, in our own particular way, embrace the freedom in our hands.

The publication and distribution of “A Taste of Torah” commentary have been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.