Parshas Mishpatim: Freedom or Slavery?

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By Rabbi Naftoly Bier

Immediately after the giving of the עשרת הדברות at Har Sinai, the Torah introduces us to the mitzvah of the עבד עברי; a Jewish male who had stolen money and can’t pay back. He is “contracted” as an indentured servant for a period of up to six years. During that period, the “master” has to provide for him and his whole family; he has to rehabilitate him despite his ignoble standing in society by providing him with the best wine and pillow he possesses, only ask to do labor/work that he is efficient at and lastly he must provide him with הענקה 6, months worth of salary, either with animals or seedlings to start his own business!

The Torah is teaching us that we must be concerned with this person, we must through our heartfelt caring for the former “criminal” inculcate in him his potential to be an outstanding member of Klal Yisroel – for every person is important to Hashem; he endowing each individual with a unique mission in His world.

But it may happen that the עבד עברי, decides that I rather stay with my “master”. The Torah instructs the “master” to drill a hole in his ear and subsequently becomes his “servant” until the Jubilee, יובל, year.

Rabbeinu Bachye, רבינו בחיי, teaches the following:

“It is a fact confirmed that the natural behavior of a servant who keeps serving the same master is liable to become demoralized with his life, wishing to become free. The fact that the Torah discusses the phenomenon of a Jewish man who prefers to remain in the permanent service of a human master instead of relying only on G-d as his master is an entirely unusual phenomenon. This is why the Torah legislated that in this instance the employer (master) in whose service this servant has chosen to remain must himself be the one who pierces the organ of a man who had heard at Mount Sinai that “the Children of Israel are My servants,” and who has yet preferred to serve a master of flesh and blood…

“I believe that this consideration explains why the paragraph did not commence with the words כי תקנה עבד ישראל, “when you purchase an Israelite as a servant,” but refers to such a person only as עבד עברי. The word ישראל is a compliment for a Jew. The servant in question did not deserve this compliment when he was sold for stealing, nor does he deserve this compliment if he prefers to serve a master of flesh and blood to serving exclusively the Almighty. The Jews in Egypt, the enslaved Jews, were always known as עברים instead of as ישראלים. Even Moses had referred to אלוקי העברים when introducing himself to Pharaoh (Exodus 5,3) as the Israelites had not yet qualified for the title “Israelites.” 

“All this explains why the Torah chose the ear of the servant which had heard G-d proclaim the commandment to be servants of G-d exclusively and had yet chosen to ignore it, to be pierced by his master whom he had chosen in order for both servant and master to realize that they had been remiss in maintaining a servant-master relationship between them. The Torah insists that this contract between the servant and the master be concluded in front of court, the representative of G-d on earth. This same attribute of Justice had waived its right as Master to kill the Jewish firstborn in Egypt in order to save the Israelites from bondage and from slavery, and here comes an Israelite and he volunteers to be a slave! The Torah repeats once more: “and he shall bring him to the door or to the doorpost,” the doorpost being reminiscent of the one which, when it was smeared with the blood of the Passover lamb, signified service of the inhabitant of that house to G-d rather than enslavement to man (Exodus 12,22). 

“This is why by piercing the ear of the servant in question the master extracts some blood from it. This blood signifies the reverse of what the blood on the doorposts and lintel of the Jews in Egypt on that fateful night had signified. Then it had expressed the desire to be free, this time it expresses the desire of the owner of that ear to remain unfree. The entire procedure legislated here by the Torah is once again a demonstration of how G-d employs the principle of מדה כנגד מדה, “measure for measure.” The letters in the Hebrew name for the tool employed, i.e . מרצע have a numerical value of 400, as if to symbolize that the servant to whom it was applied wanted to add to the 400 years of bondage of the Jewish people in Egypt.

“A Midrashic approach to the words והגישו אל הדלת: G-d had said: “I opened the door of the house for him to enable him to walk into freedom and he slammed the door upon himself in order to remain a slave! As a penalty he will be hit by the door.”

This lesson imparted to us is a general lesson applicable to everyday living. The natural state of a person is to try to reject governance, to be told what to do. The indentured servant who for some years has been treated with incredible sensitivity, rather be comfortable where he is and not strive for human greatness, to develop his potential – to live a life that doesn’t require exertion, planning, dedication, alacrity, and supreme obligation. For if Hashem created him, how is it possible that he feels no obligation to subjugate his will directly to Hashem?! To be successful one has to constantly ask, “Am I truthfully actualizing my potential? Am I constantly focused if I am exerting myself? Do I recognize my obligations to Klal Yisrael? Is my master Hashem or is it my selfish motives for fame, wealth, or other desires?


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