Picture this scene: after a prisoner spends 20 years in prison, the warden swings open the gate and tells him, “This is it; you are free!” Imagine if the prisoner responds, “I think I’ll just stay here. I have my bed, I decorated my walls, and I know the lunch schedule.” The warden would look at him like he is crazy! Does he know what he is passing up?
Similarly, in this week’s Parashah, we read about the Eved Ivri, Jewish slave, whose term as a slave has concluded at the beginning of the Shemittah year. His freedom is handed to him and he has the opportunity to live his life as a free man. Think about what that would mean to you if you were a slave--the opportunity to regain control of your time, your choices, your decisions, and your life. But this slave chooses to remain a slave. Why would a slave choose slavery over freedom? What is holding him back, and how do we address the situation?
As a therapist, I might theorize that this slave is experiencing some type of anxiety. Perhaps he is afraid of the unknown: what will freedom mean for him? How will he earn a living? Will he be able to integrate back into society? As the famous expression goes, “The evil you know is better than the evil you don't.” This slave needs help working through these concerns so that he can embrace his newfound freedom.
Interestingly enough, The Torah lays out a completely different response to the slave’s reluctance to embrace his freedom, and in doing so, it reveals to us what is truly at the root of his peculiar actions. The Torah tells us “VeHiggisho El HaDelet O El HaMezuzah, VeRatzah Adonav Et Ozno BaMartzei’ah, VeAvado LeOlam,” “[The slave’s master] should bring [the slave] to the door or the doorpost, and the master should pierce [the slave’s] ear with an awl, and [the slave] will serve him forever” (Shemot 21:6).
The Torah’s response to the slave’s rejection of freedom is to take the slave’s ear and hammer it to the doorpost. Why is this our response? The Gemara in Kiddushin explains, “Ozen SheSham’ah Koli Al Har Sinai BeSha’ah SheAmarti ‘Ki Li Bnei Yisrael Avadim,’ VeLo Avadim LeAvadim--VeHalach Zeh VeKanah Adon LeAtzmo--Yirza,” “The ear that heard at Mount Sinai ‘The Children of Israel are [Hashem’s] servants’ (VaYikra 25:55) not servants to anyone else--and he went and acquired a master for himself--[his ear] should be pierced” (Kiddushin 22b).
The Gemara is helping us understand that the slave’s problem is not an anxiety problem; it has something to do with his ears. Yet we are left with a question again: if the slave’s problem is an attention issue, that he missed the instruction at Har Sinai and does not know that he is forbidden to enslave himself, it would make sense to punish him by piercing his ear. The piercing would remind him, “Next time, be sure to listen.” The problem is, the Gemara begins by telling us “Ozen SheSham’ah BeHar Sinai,” “this ear that heard at Mount Sinai.” Clearly the slave waspaying attention at Har Sinai and did hear Hashem’s condemnation of willful human slavery. Why, then, does he not obey Hashem?
Our Mashgiach Ruchani, Rav Ezra Wiener, taught me that whenever the word “Shama” is used in the Torah, Targum Onkelos will translate it as either “Shama,” “heard,” or “Kibeil,” “accepted.” Sometimes, when we hear words, we are just doing the physical act of hearing the sounds, while other times, we are Mekabeil, contemplating and accepting the message that we hear. Perhaps we can use this idea to suggest that this slave heard the words at Har Sinai, but he only heard them on the physical, superficial level. He was not Mekabeil the words. He did not stop to contemplate the immense opportunity that Hashem offered him with the words “Ki Li Bnei Yisrael Avadim,” the opportunity to break free from the mundane and to use every decision, action, and second of his life to serve his true master, the Ribono Shel Olam.
Without a deep appreciation for what it means to be a servant of Hashem, it easy to understand why the slave would choose to remain enslaved to a human master. With his human master, he has food, shelter, limited responsibility, and limited risks.
Rav Chaim Friedlander, in Siftei Chaim, suggests that this slave is not alone. Throughout history, we see Jews who lack appreciation for the great opportunity that Hashem presents to each and every one of us with the words “Ki Li Bnei Yisrael Avadim.” Those Jews choose to look elsewhere to find other gods and desires to serve and worship.
As we read Parashat Mishpatim this week with the Aseret HaDibrot of Parashat Yitro still fresh in our minds, let us take the opportunity to contemplate and consider the great opportunity that we each have to singularly dedicate our lives to the service of our true Master.