Parashat Mishpatim 5778
“Rejecting freedom is a way to despise God, the Torah, and its values”
This week’s parasha contains the first body of Torah legislation, dealing with different topics related to daily life.
I would like to focus on one of the laws related to slavery. It is written in the Torah that when a person who is a slave has the option to become a free person, but he or she rejects this possibility, “his master shall take him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall then remain his slave for life” (Sh’mot 21: 6).
This verse raises many questions. Why does the master have to pierce the slave’s ear? Why the ear and not another part of the body? Why does the slave remain enslaved for life? What is the problem with the slave’s attitude?
It is written in the Talmud Bavli Masechet Kidushin 22b: “Why is the ear different from all the other limbs in the body, as the ear alone is pierced? The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: This ear heard My voice on Mount Sinai when I said: “For to Me the children of Israel are slaves” (Leviticus 25:55), which indicates: And they should not be slaves to slaves. And yet this man went and willingly acquired a master for himself. Therefore, let this ear be pierced.”
Then, there is another question with another answer:
“And Rabbi Shimon bar Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi would likewise expound this verse as a type of decorative wreath: Why are the door and a doorpost different from all other objects in the house, that the piercing is performed with them? The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: The door and the doorpost were witnesses in Egypt when I passed over the lintel and when I passed over the doorposts of houses in which there were Jews (Exodus, chapter 12), and I said: “For to Me the children of Israel are slaves,” and they should not be slaves to slaves. And I delivered them at that time from slavery to freedom, and yet this man went and acquired a master for himself. Therefore, let him be pierced before them, as they are witnesses that he violated God’s will.”
These sources try to explain why, according to this law, the master had to bring the person to the door or the doorpost and not to other places and why it was the ear that was pierced and not other parts of the body.
The door or doorpost reminds us of when God liberated the people of Israel from being slaves to the Egyptians and the ear reminds us of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. They are the two greatest events that the people of Israel lived in their history. God liberated the people of Israel with the mission that they become a free people, able to receive a great treasure, God’s laws to create an ethical and just society.
A person who rejects the option to be a free person rejects the most important value that God gave us.
God expects us to be a free people in order to follow God’s values and commandments. We had to be a free people in order to accept and receive the Torah.
In the case we are dealing with from this week’s parashah, the person had the option to be free, but decided to be a slave. Maybe it was necessary that his or her ear be pierced in order to show the society how bad it is to reject and despise freedom, the basic condition of every human being. While enslavement is a bad condition for human beings, it is much worse when a person who was a slave, and then was liberated, chooses again to be a slave.
God cannot tolerate these kinds of decisions. They are against God, against the Torah and its main values. You may transgress many precepts, but to reject freedom is major.
Kli Yakar explains the meaning of the doorpost in this way: “Why a doorpost? Because a door was opened for him to go free, and he refused to go.”
A door was opened but he or she couldn’t understand, appreciate and realize the meaning of being a free person.
Maybe God wanted, with that sign in the ear, to show other people how important and precious freedom is in our tradition. We shouldn’t ever give up this condition. It is our major blessing.
Sometimes we have the option to be free but we are afraid and we choose to enslave ourselves to different kinds of modern masters. It reminds me of the title of one of the famous books of Erich Fromm, The Fear of Freedom. It is true: it is not easy to be free, it is not easy to make decisions, it is not easy to have responsibilities, it is not easy to have the possibility to choose. However, it is a blessing and treasure that we shouldn’t reject.
Following these teachings, let’s appreciate the important value of freedom and be thankful for having the possibility to live as a free people with our traditions and believes.