In this week’s Parsha, the Torah tells us the laws of the עבד עברי, the Jewish slave. If a Jew steals something and is unable to repay the owner, he is sold into slavery, and his wages are used to pay for the stolen item. In addition, a Jew who finds himself in financial difficulty has the option of selling himself into slavery. The period of slavery lasts for six years. However, if at the end of his term “the slave says, ‘I love my master...I will not go free,’ his master shall bring him to the judges, and the master shall bring him to the door or the doorpost, and his master shall bore through his ear with an awl, and he shall serve his master forever” (21:2-6). Rashi explains that, “This ear that heard on Mount Sinai, ‘Thou shall not steal,’ yet went and stole, let it be pierced. And if he sells himself into slavery, the ear that heard on Mount Sinai, ‘For unto me the children of Israel are servants, they are my servants and shall not be servants to servants,’ and yet he sold himself and acquired a master for himself, let it be pierced.”
If ear piercing is an appropriate punishment for theft, though, why is it only instituted in a case of a slave who chooses to remain a slave? Why is it not applied as a direct punishment for all theft? And, according to Rashi’s second explanation, why wait until the renewal of his slavery and not pierce his ear immediately upon his entrance into the realm of the Jewish slave?
Perhaps we can offer an explanation that Hashem is all merciful and slow to anger. He takes into consideration not only the crime, but also the circumstances surrounding that crime. Imagine what desperate straits a person had to be in to willingly reduce himself to the position of being a slave for another; how desperate must his financial situation have been. Surely he is neither proud nor happy to subjugate himself in such a manner. Accordingly, Hashem understands this as being done not to disregard His commandment of not accepting a foreign master. However if at some time, as we see, he should proclaim, “I love my master...I will not go out free,” this would indicate that he feels that being a slave is an optimal situation, rather than “I wish I did not have to be a slave, as Hashem does not wish me to be a slave.” As such, the Torah prescribes the piercing of the ear that disregarded “To Me are the Jewish People servants.”
Similarly, ear piercing is not the appropriate punishment for theft. It is not true that all theft comes from failing to internalize a message from Hashem. Most theft simply comes about in a moment of weakness, either out of financial desperation or one’s succumbing to temptation. The Torah recognizes that such moments of weakness do in fact occur and must be addressed as such. Therefore, the punishment for theft is double compensation: only if the thief lacks the funds must he be sold into slavery. Not every thief ignored the commandment not to steal; rather, most thieves simply found themselves in situations they were unable to cope with.
Slavery is a horrible situation to endure, but there are times when there is no alternative. The situation discussed here, however, is different. Slavery is the lowest and most degrading level a person can sink to, yet this slave is declaring, after six years, that this is the situation in which he chooses to live. This is a much more fundamental failing than simply succumbing to temptation. Here we see a basic flaw in this slave’s character, a disregard for the will of Hashem. It is this failing that is addressed by ear piercing. In modern application, we might say that if one finds himself in a non-optimal situation but recognizes this as being non-optimal and consciously focuses on changing the situation, Hashem is patient. One must not, however, proclaim, “I love my present situation...I do not want to change and grow.” This person echoes disregard for the will of Hashem and has no desire for personal spiritual growth.