For the first four Parashiyot in the beginning of Sefer Shemot, we read about the terrible slavery of the Jewish people in Egypt. Following the story of our redemption, we next read about the great miracles of Yetzi’at Mitzrayim, the redemption from Egypt, and receiving the Torah. Fittingly, because Parashat Mishpatim opens on the heels of the Aseret HaDiberot, we read about the laws of slavery. The juxtaposition of our slavery in Egypt to the laws of sensitivity toward slaves is appropriate since our sensitivity to the plight of a slave should be heightened through our own experience. The sensitivity described in this week’s Parashah (and further explained by Chazal) mandates that the slave owner provides the slave with all of the slave’s needs and even the luxuries that the slave owner provides for himself. However, this feeling of sensitivity should also remind us to despise becoming a slave; a slave is unable to serve God to the utmost, whilst freedom provides us with the ultimate opportunity to serve Hashem.
With this backdrop, it is easy for us to understand the grave error of a Jew who decides that he wants to remain a slave when he completes his slavery period. The Jewish slave, who is entitled to freedom after six years, can decide to remain a slave until the Yovel year arrives every fifty years. Consequently, The Torah commands the owner to pierce the slaves’s ear to demonstrate his desire to remain enslaved. The Gemara (Kiddushin 22b) questions the necessity of piercing the slave's ear. The Gemara answers that, “The ear that heard at Har Sinai, ‘You are slaves to Me’ and chose not to go free deserves to be punished.” With the memory of our enslavement in Egypt fresh in our minds, it is quite understandable that the Torah is critical of the person who could go free, yet chooses to remain a slave.
However, the focus on the nailing of the ear to the doorpost is puzzling. Although literally the slave selectively “heard” through his ears, it is more likely that it was his heart or mind that made the decision to remain a slave; the ear certainly did not decide! Therefore, why is such an emphasis placed on the ear?
The Sefat Emet explains the significance of piercing the ear. At Har Sinai, Hashem proclaimed a powerful message to Bnei Yisrael, focusing us on our mission in life as Avdei Hashem. Someone who was present at Har Sinai, yet chooses slavery, may have heard the words without hearing the message. Because the message was not internalized, it never passed through the listener's ears! Therefore, the Torah commands us to poke a hole in his ear, encouraging the slave to open his ears to hear what is being said.
A similar idea is developed by Rav Chaim Shmulevitz who commented in his Sichot Mussar on the miracle of Keriyat Yam Suf. Chazal describe that even a simple maidservant in Bnei Yisrael prophesied greater than that of a famous later prophet. Yet, Rav Chaim Shmulevitz wonders, how could the very same people who saw this great revelation commit the grave sin of the Golden Calf a short amount of time later? Rav Chaim Shmulevitz answers by noting that Chazal still describe the maidservant as a maidservant, even after profoundly seeing God’s presence; the maidservant still remained a simple maidservant. Therefore, failing to internalize the experience of Keriyat Yam Suf enabled Bnei Yisrael to sin with the Cheit HaEgel. Similarly, the slave witnesses Hashem at Har Sinai but he fails to internalize Hashem's message.
A powerful story is told about a poor man who once begged for money. The beggar knocked on the home a wealthy man from the Rothschild family. Mr. Rothschild, in a generous mood, asked the beggar his plan of action if the beggar would be given one million dollars. The poor man responded, “I would no longer walk door to door begging for money. I would hire a horse and buggy to take me door to door begging.” The poor man could have received the money, but he could not internalize that receiving the money could have transformed him into a wealthy man.
As a community, we have committed to a Tefillah initiative. A very basic question raised regarding Tefillah is why is it necessary to Daven if Hashem already knows one's needs? Why should one's Davening affect Hashem's decision? Rav Akiva Tatz suggests an answer that follows the same idea of the Sefat Emet and Rav Chaim Shmuleviz. One's request may be the same, regardless of verbalization to Hashem. In reality, the one who prays is changed, not Hashem’s decision. Therefore, it is possible that without having Davened, it would be inappropriate for one to receive a certain gift from God. But after Davening, it is appropriate for one, new and improved, to receive the gift. If we take this idea seriously, we should strive to make each Davening a transformative process, not only by saying the words, but also by understanding the words that we have uttered through having a conversation with Hashem.
In the merit of this commitment to Tefillah, may all of our prayers be answered!