“But if the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,’ then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life.” — Exodus 21:5–6
The Torah portion for this week is Mishpatim, which means “laws,” from Exodus 21:1–24:18, and the Haftorah is from Jeremiah 34:8–22.
The Torah portion begins with a long list of laws, the first of which covers servitude. These rules obligated anyone who bought a Hebrew slave to let him go free after six years. If the servant refused to leave, then the master was commanded to make a hole in the servant’s ear by piercing it next to a doorpost.
The Jewish sages noticed the irony —the Israelites had just been freed from slavery, and now the first law listed was about becoming slaves again! They also wondered why the ear was singled out from all other body parts to be the place where the Hebrew slave was to be “punished.” What was the significance of that?
The sages explained the ear-piercing for this reason: God said, “The ear heard My voice on Mount Sinai when I proclaimed, ‘for the Israelites belong to me as servants. They are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt’ (Leviticus 25:55). Yet, this man has gone and acquired a master for himself. Let his ear be bored through!”
God had given the children of Israel their freedom and explained that they would no longer be servants to any man – only servants to God. But the slave who chose to remain a slave balked at God’s gift and was not appreciative of his freedom. His ears heard God’s words, but he chose to ignore them, and that’s why the ear was to be pierced.
It’s hard to understand why anyone would willingly forfeit their freedom, yet the Bible teaches us that a life of servitude can be enticing. When someone is enslaved, they are told what to do, when to do it, what to eat, when to sleep, and so forth.
There is a comfort in servitude. There is no need to take risks or make choices. Freedom is a gift, but it also comes with responsibilities. For some people, it’s simply easier to remain a slave than step out into the great wide world of freedom.
We fall into this same trap sometimes. We say it this way: “If only (fill in the blank) were different, then I would be different.” But God says that we are free to be whomever we want to be. We are slaves to no one and nothing but God! We can choose a life of slavery – believing that we have to do certain things or look a certain way. We can make excuses for why we can’t do this or that. But God wants us to be free. He wants us to know that only He is our master and that we are free to become whomever we choose.
What kind of person would you like to be? Exercise your freedom and be that person now!
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President