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Parshas Mishpatim – Embracing Life’s Challenges

By: Rav Dov Lipman

This week’s Parsha begins, “And these are the laws (mishpatim) which you shall place before them.”  The word “mishpatim,” here, refer to the basic civic laws within Jewish society.  However, instead of beginning with the common laws of proper behavior between man and man, the Torah immediately jumps to the following unusual scenario:

“When a man acquires a Hebrew slave for six years he shall work and in the seventh year he goes free.  If he came in single he should go out single, if he is a man with a wife, his wife goes out free with him.”  (21:2-3)

Our Sages teach, as quoted in Rashi, that this refers to a man who is sold into indentured servitude because he stole something and does not have the money to reimburse the owner for the object.  Why does the Torah introduce the civic laws with this strange circumstance?  Both the Ramban and the Kli Yakar ask this question and feel compelled to explain that there is nothing about the law of “Eved Ivri,” itself, which warrants placing it first among the civil laws. Rather, this mitzvah indirectly relates to other fundamental concepts in Judaism thus warranting its placement as first among these laws.  A quote from the Ramban (21:2) demonstrates this approach:

"The Torah begins with the laws of the Hebrew slave because the regulation that he is sent away in the seventh year is a reminder of our exodus from Egypt…these laws remind us of Creation and the Sabbath. The seventh year of bondage is like a Sabbath for the slave just as the seventh day is a day of rest... therefore, it is reasonable that Parshat Mishpatim begins with this commandment."   

Rav Hirsch, however, teaches that the nature of the law of the “Eved Ivri,” itself, mandates that it serve as the first of the civil laws – the “Rights of Man,” in his words.  Rav Hirsch explains that this law gives us the greatest insight into “the underlying ideas and conceptions of the Torah’s system of Jurisprudence and its institutions of Law and Human Rights and their very fundamentally different character to all other systems of Law.”   

Why is this so?  Let us reexamine this particular case. According to Torah law, a thief who can't pay back that which he stole is to be sold as a slave.   This is the only situation where deprivation of freedom is used as a punishment in Torah law.  Even in this instance, the word “punishment” is a misnomer.  The entire process is actually instructional.  The money for the sale goes directly to the victim of the theft thereby teaching the robber responsibility for his actions. He is sold to a family of individuals who serve as proper role models. He sees a father earning an honest living and providing for his family in a respectable fashion. These are values which he can then incorporate into his own life at the end of his servitude.  In fact, in Sefer Devarim (15:14), the Torah teaches that the master is commanded to supply the slave with gifts of significant value when he is freed.  This ensures that the newly liberated slave will have the means for a fresh start toward a different lifestyle. 

Thus, as a preface to the civic laws, we learn that imprisonment or deprivation of liberty solely for the sake of exacting punishment is foreign to the Torah perspective.  Rehabilitating the violator is the goal.  Furthermore, we learn how far we must go to preserve the self respect of this “slave” who is to be afforded the same basic dignity as his fellow Jews.  Since this “slave” is a Jew, he continues to perform all the commands of the Torah just like his “master.”  His servitude is for a limited period of time – a maximum of six years.   There are numerous laws guiding treatment of this slave as codified by the Rambam (Laws of Servants 1:9):

“…the ‘master’ is required to provide equal food, drink, clothing and living quarters, as it says, ‘that it should be good for him with you,’...And the ‘master’ must conduct himself with regard to these his servants in a brotherly manner, as it says, ‘And with your brother Children of Israel…’” 

When contrasted to the norms of society at that time, especially in the context of how slaves and prisoners were routinely mistreated, we learn a valuable lesson from this first of civil laws about the “Rights of Man.”  It serves as a meaningful introduction to all of the “mishpatim.”

 This beautiful explanation gives us a whole new rational and humane perspective to what seemed like a strange and misplaced law.  That is true until we reach the end of the law where we read (21:5-6):

“But if the bondsman shall say…‘I shall not go free’ then his master shall bring him to court and shall bring him to the door or to the doorpost, and his master shall pierce through his ear with the awl and he shall serve him forever.”

We do what to his what using a what???  Where does this come from?  This certainly sounds inherently punitive and primitive! What happened to the moral and instructional approach which Rav Hirsch has elucidated?

We begin with Rashi.  He quotes Rav Yochanan from the Gemara (Kiddushin 22b) who teaches that “This ear that heard on Mount Sinai, 'Thou shall not steal,’ yet went and stole, let it be pierced.”  

The obvious question, asked by the Kli Yakar and others is why don’t we apply this logic to punish transgressors of other sins?  For example, “The ear that heard at Sinai ‘You shall distance yourself from lies’ and he went ahead and lied, deserves to be pierced.”  What is unique about stealing? Furthermore, why don’t we apply this procedure to all cases of theft?  Why is it reserved for a thief turned “slave” who chooses to remain a slave?  So, we must continue our search for an explanation.

Once, again, we turn to Rav Hirsch.  He begins by pointing out, based on the Mechilta and Masechet Kiddushin (22b), that the Halacha dictates that the person’s ear has to be pierced specifically to the door and not to the doorpost.  Furthermore, a doorpost in Torah thought represents an independent home.  That is why the Jews placed the blood of the Pesach offering on the doorpost.  It represented the fact that they were to become free to build their own homes in the spirit of G-d and His commands.  A door, on the other hand, symbolizes entrance and exit into the home – belonging to the home - but not the home, itself.  Thus, Rav Hirsch explains:

“The slave who prefers the security and carefree comfort that is assured to him in the state of bondage to his own independent family life with all its worries and cares…his ear is there pierced with an awl by the master to the door…The Jew who belittles the dignity of being ‘doorposts,’ independently to bear on his own shoulders the burden of a home, and sells his freedom for the ease of “belonging” to someone and who has no ear for the call of G-d to freedom and independence, his ear is bored to a door, in the presence of a doorpost and thereby the stamp of ‘belonging to a home’ impressed on him.”  

This “slave” has completed the rehabilitation process and is now on the verge of once, again, acquiring his independence.  He has been given the tools to do this while being in control of his own life.  Turning down that opportunity and choosing  dependence instead is, in a sense, rejecting what G-d wants from each of us.  Life is not supposed to be easy and carefree.  G-d wants us to deal with the challenges of being independent while also dealing with the concerns and responsibilities of family life.   Those very challenges help us become better people and, ultimately, more G-dly.

Using Rav Hirsch’s beautiful explanation we can find an even deeper significance in the reason we permanently scar the ear, specifically, with this exact instrument.  The Netziv explains that when the Torah describes this slave being brought to the court, the purpose is for the judges to rebuke him and to try to convince him to set his priorities straight.  Presumably, they explain the benefits of living a life of independence and responsibility.  The act of piercing him with an awl is meant to hurt him – representing the hurt he is inflicting on himself. He may not have learned the lesson but perhaps others, upon seeing his painful scar, will.

The ear is targeted because it is the part of the body over which we have no control. If we are in a place where sound waves are being created, they will enter the ear and the ear can do nothing about it.  We can call upon other parts of the body, such as a finger, to help close the ear but the ear, itself, has no such control. That specific organ symbolizes being the object of things happening to it with no ability to act on its own.  That is the lifestyle which this “slave” has chosen.  He doesn’t want to be independent and in control of his own destiny. He prefers to sit back and have things done for him and to him. The pain inflicted on his ear by the awl represents the hurt he is causing to himself and to his mission in life by choosing this erroneous path.      

The Torah (21:6) states that the person who makes this decision becomes a slave “forever.”  The Vilna Gaon teaches that the ear-piercing ritual indeed binds the servant into permanent service of his master.  It is a technicality that the mitzvah of Yovel comes along and extricates the servant from his subjugation.  The Meshech Chachma explains that if one were to theoretically become a “nirtza” and then a majority of Jews were exiled from Israel thereby ceasing the Torah laws associated with Yovel, this “slave” would actually be in servitude forever. This concept, while not practical in nature, symbolically teaches that one who makes this erroneous decision to live an easy lifestyle of dependency will be stuck in that mode forever.  That poor attitude will paralyze him and hurt him to the point that there is no turning back. 

We, thus, learn two very important lessons from the saga of the “Eved Ivri.”  The first is that we should embrace the responsibilities associated with independent family life with all of its trials and challenges.  G-d created us to grow through these struggles and to use them to fulfill our potential.  Seeking the easy way out is detrimental to our mission on Earth.  We similarly learn that when we are trying to help others – whether through punishing a child, rebuking a student, or assisting troubled family members and friends - our approach should be instructional with rehabilitation in mind.

May we be inspired to maintain this clarity of purpose and attitude throughout our lives.