Women's Jewish learning center in Migdal Oz, Gush Etzion
Women's Jewish learning center in Migdal Oz, Gush Etzion Flash 90

Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

Parshat Mishpatim, read this past Shabbat, literally includes many of the ordinances and laws that define man's interactions with his fellow man. Much of the Parshah sets the rules for the treatment of indentured servants and slaves, either from Bnei Yisroel or from other nations. [It must be noted that although the Torah differentiates between Jewish slaves and gentile slaves in some areas, the Torah requires that all slaves and servants be treated humanely. CKS] The eved Ivri is a slave for six years.

However, it is possible that the Jewish slave will choose to remain in service to his human master even when his term of service has ended. In that case, the master is first to bring the servant to the court, and then bring him to the doorpost and bore a hole is his ear with an awl, and he shall serve him forever [until the Jubilee year].

Our commentators discuss many questions about this ritual. Two of the major discussions revolve around why the Torah dictates that the ear, rather than any other body part, bear the sign of permanent servitude to the human master, and why the ear piercing is to be done at the door. A related question is why this ritual is done at the end of the prescribed years of servitude, when the slave chooses to remain a slave, rather than at the beginning of his servitude, when the courts have sent him into this service.

Rashi notes the significance of both the doorpost and the ear. Bnei Yisroel's first sign as an act of impending freedom was painting their doorposts with the blood of the Pascal lamb, signaling death to pass over their homes and symbolizing their imminent freedom. Fifty days later, this was followed by their ears hearing the command, "Thou shalt not steal," at Sinai. When the eved Ivri chooses to remain a slave to a human master, he is rejecting God as his true Master even after he has paid off his crime.

Rabbi Druk in Aish Tamid asks two additional questions. First, our entire bodies were present at Sinai; why is the ear being singled out for this procedure? Additionally, our tradition teaches that the command not to steal, as expressed in the Ten Commandments, refers mostly to the stealing of souls, to kidnapping. How can stealing material items necessitating service to pay the debt be related to kidnapping, to stealing of souls?

As we know, hearing can mean simply "going in our ear and out the other." However, we are meant to really hear, to connect the ear to the brain and to the heart, to internalize the message writes Rabbi Frand, among others. This message applies even more today. We have become a "spectator society" that sees and hears everything around us, but has no control over anything, including over our own lives. Rabbi Leff backs this point with a biological explanation. The outer ear is meant to channel the sounds inward to the inner ears until the message reaches our brain that then channels it to our heart as well. The outer ear failed in its duty to bring the message of God as Master to him personally, and therefore the ear becomes the symbol.

But the sound continues to echo throughout the ages. As our Sages tell us, "An echo emanates daily from Sinai bemoaning the dishonor to God." We continue to ignore God's call.

In Shaarei Derech, Rabbi Fryman even brings legal support to the importance of the ear. Payment for causing someone to be deaf is higher than for injuring any other organ, for it is the ear that brings us human understanding, to really hear and understand what the other is saying. But we must also protect the ear from hearing improper messages, we must block our ears with our fingers, or push our earlobes up as protection, while still allowing positive, constructive messages to enter. But if you block your ear from hearing the positive, necessary messages of Torah, if you let them go in one ear and out the other without internalizing them, warns us Rabbi Fryman, if we "despise His words," Hashem will also close His ears and despise our prayers when we call out to Him.

Sound is one of the clearest pathways to the soul, points out Rebbetzin Smiles. Music can elate us, bring us to tears, calm us. And the effects of music remain after the sound itself has ceased. How often do we continue to hum the music that was playing in the store we exited several minutes ago.

However, we acknowledge that humans are flawed and will transgress, even perhaps steal. Being sentenced to indenture provides a path back to full, responsible humanity. But when his term of servitude is complete and the man rejects his freedom to serve Hashem and chooses to serve another human instead, he is not just flawed, he is rejecting the sovereignty of His Supreme Master; he is rejecting the message his ears heard at Sinai.

To be a Jew is to incorporate the sovereignty of the One Master into our very essence when we recite "Shema Yisroel/Hear O Israel the Lord our God the Lord is One." As Rabbi Milevsky quoting Rav Hutner notes, the ear is the most passive of all the sense organs, and is therefore the symbol of the passive life of a slave. To be a slave is to accept all one's needs without responsibility for oneself or for others. He lacks freedom on an emotional level even before becoming a slave physically.

Rebbetzin Smiles clarifies the passivity of the ears. All other senses give out as well as receive. The hands touch as well as receive input from being touched. One can taste and spit out as well as be fed. One can breathe out and sneeze as well as smell. The eyes can not only see, but can also communicate through blinking especially with modern technology for the speech impaired. [We say the eyes are the mirror to the soul, for the eyes also communicate every emotion. CKS] Only the ears receive inward without themselves giving out. Only the ears must internalize and then use the rest of one's being to transform what one hears into outward action. Therefore hear and hearing are so often repeated in the Torah and are so much a part of our liturgy and heritage. But he who chooses to remain a slave to a human master rejects his responsibility as a responsible Jew, obeying not the Master, but his human master. The hole in his ear indicates this flaw in his perception.

The doorpost furthers this symbolism, writes the Klei Yakar. The door is open, the slave is free to leave, but he remains passive and refuses to move toward freedom.

Our Sages, in studying the Commandment of "Thou shalt not steal" remark that the command actually refers to stealing a soul, to kidnapping. But all the commandments are not just specifics. They are also general categories from which we can infer other prohibitions. For example, "Thou shalt not kill," includes embarrassing someone so that he will drain/spill his blood from his face or to his face. Similarly, "Thou shalt not steal" includes theft of material goods as well as kidnapping How can we equate material theft with kidnapping? Both of these broad interpretations are meant to be understood by the discerning ear listening to the message in the deeper meaning of the words themselves, writes Rabbi Druk.

Rabbi Schenierman notes, only by listening and processing the messages from the yetzer horo can we truly understand that following its leadership is a form of worshiping a strange god, whether it is worship of self, honor, riches, or any other passion. We are all in the position of an eved ivri, suggests Rabbi Gamliel Rabinowitz in Tiv Hatorah. We are meant to be spiritual beings, but we sell ourselves into the physicality of this world. We worship the foreign gods within ourselves. Although Hashem commanded that we must work for our bread, how many of us spend inordinate amounts of time working to buy luxuries, willingly taking the time away from spiritual pursuits or from bonding with family [usually while raising stress levels]. This mitzvah, then, not to become enslaved to temporal wants, is a constant struggle for each of us.

What does it mean to be a slave? Rabbi Svei, citing Rabbi Chaskel Lichtenstein, explains that a slave has no identity of his own. His entire being is subsumed under his master's identity and will. To be a true eved Hashem/God's servant is likewise to be able to subsume one's personal desires to Hashem's will. For example, one may want to sleep in late on a day off from work, but it is time to get up and daven Shacharit. Will I restrain myself from tuning in to hear the latest gossip, and certainly from repeating it. [Interestingly, our Rabbis tell us that listening to loshon horo is worse than actually telling it, for by listening, you are encouraging the speaker to continue with his negative speech. How instructive is this within our current discussion? CKS]

Do you control your desires, or do they control you? As long as you are not in control, you are their slave, and you are deaf to Hashem's words.

One of the most insidious encroachments on true freedom is the desire to conform and be recognized by society, writes Rabbi Wolbe. Even when doing mitzvoth, are we doing them solely for the sake of Heaven, or are we hoping others will notice our beautiful esrog?. Do we hope our substantial donation will get our picture in a newspaper, or do we prefer to remain anonymous? True freedom enables us to do what is right in private, outside the public eye. As Rabbi Beyfus says, we were all equal at Har Sinai. There was no jealousy or maneuvering for honor. It is Hashem Who is our Judge and our Master. It is His values that must become our own, and for that, we must take personal responsibility.

The Shvilei Pinchas expands on the importance of hearing. In general, one cannot hear two voices at the same time, [Just ask any teacher.] However, if one is totally focused on a particular message, one may extrapolate one voice from the general din and hear the particular message. [Again, ask any mother searching for her child in a crowd of screaming toddlers.] This is the key to our response at Sinai of, "Naaseh venishma/We will do and we will hear." Naaseh/Doing refers to action, what we must do in the business of our daily lives. But even then, our ears must be attuned to the voice of God within us, to conduct our mundane, material lives guided by our Heavenly Master.

We must hear Hashem's voice commanding us hayom/today, as fresh as it was at Sinai, for it is a voice that is eternal. It is Hashem Who gives us the Torah anew each day, nosain Hatorah/He Who gives [present tense] the Torah. When we experience the sweetness of Torah, veha'arev na, we become capable of hearing that voice even amid the cacophony of the material world around us. Hence this bracha proceeds the bracha reminding us of receiving the Torah each day.

The Hebrew slave is taken to the doorpost, to the mezuzah which contains the Shema and the passage that Hashem is commanding us today, but the slave is removing it from his heart to serve an earthly master. He has closed his ear the eternal sound of Hashem's voice.

Now we can understand the connection between stealing material goods and stealing a soul, kidnapping, and why we perform this ritual at the end of the years of servitude instead of at the beginning. Rabbi Schwab explains that while his servitude began as restitution for stealing material goods, now by choosing to remain in service to a human master, he is "kidnapping" himself, stealing his soul from the service to Hakodosh Boruch Hu.

The echo of Hashem's voice reverberates even today. Are our ears attuned to the call, or are we so enraptured, addicted and enslaved in the physical, material world that we cannot hear that voice? It is always difficult to find the right hearing aid that will silence the unimportant, surrounding noises around us and let the personally directed sounds enter the ear to be decoded by the brain to become the basis of our thoughts and actions. But that is our mission, to walk through the door as proud Jews, using God's mission as our standing orders every day.