Earlier this week, we studied the Torah’s first post-Sinai law: what happens when your Hebrew slave, whose six years of servitude are coming to a close, doesn’t want to leave you. “But if the slave declares, ‘I love my master, and my wife and children: I do not wish to go free,’ 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 remain his slave for life” (Exodus 21:5-6).
Thus begins this week’s portion, Mishpatim, which means “rules.” So much of our Torah up to this point has been narrative; even the “Ten Commandments” are really part of a dramatic story of revelation at Sinai. Now, we get rules, and lots of them. But this is the first. And as we learned Wednesday evening, this rule is meant to remind ancient Israel that being redeemed from slavery means never wanting to be a slave again. The ear that heard at Sinai that we are to be servants of God, not servants of servants, should suffer the consequences of its apparent difficulty in listening to God’s dictates.
But doesn’t the Torah feel badly for the slave? He came into his situation empty-handed, and now he has a family, and sees not bondage but bonding. Why punish him so harshly for not wanting to separate from his loved ones?
David Hazony, a writer and editor in Israel, has some thoughts about why the Torah portion about rules starts with this rule. It’s an observation about the interaction between laws and people. We’ll look at it Shabbat morning, and talk about its implications for our society.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wise