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Parsha Mitzvot: Mishpatim: That Ear Thing

I’m having difficulty understanding the pierced ear of the slave who does not want to leave.
The slave, six years after being sold into slavery to pay for stealing, is quite comfortable where he is. His master is obligated to pay attention to the slaves needs. The master must treat the slave with respect. If there is only a single pillow in the house, it is for the slave, not the master. The slave may have a Canaanite slave woman for his pleasure and to father children who will remain in the master’s home. The master will shower him with gifts when the slave is ready to return home.

“But if the bondsman shall say, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children – I shall not go free,’ then his master shall bring him to the court and shall bring him to the door or to the doorpost, and his master shall bore through his ear with the awl, and he shall serve him forever.” (Exodus 21:5-6)

The Jew who prefers to be a servant of a human master rather than owe his allegiance entirely to God, has rejected the lesson of the doorpost in Egypt. Therefore the boring is done against a door. (Kiddushin 22b) “Rabbi Yochanan taught, ‘The ear that heard, ‘You shall not steal,’ at Sinai, should be pierced.” (Mechilta)

I understand why the doorpost and why the ear. I do not understand why the Torah obligates the master rather than Bet Din to pierce his ear. If the piercing is a punishment for ignoring, “Do not steal,” the court should pierce his ear for having stolen. Why is it the response to his desire to remain in his very comfortable existence as a slave?

Perhaps the piercing is not only for the servant, but for the master as well: We are discussing a master who desires that his slave remains. (Rambam Hilchot Avadim, Chapter 3, Halacha 11) What is the master thinking as his slave declares his desire to remain?

The Talmud (Kiddushin 20a) teaches, “Whoever purchases a Hebrew slave, purchases a master for himself.” Tosafot explains that the master must give the servant preferential treatment that goes over and beyond the Mitzvah of brotherly love.

A master is obligated to provide sustenance for the wife and children of the Jewish slave. (Rambam, Hilchot Avadim, Chapter 3)

Does the master desire “ a master for himself?” Why is he willing to give up so much for a slave who is more an obligation than benefit?

We can understand a situation in which the master is not fulfilling his full obligations to the servant, that he too, is stealing; from the servant. Hence, the reflection on “Do not steal.”

However, I suspect that there is something unhealthy in the relationship between this master and his servant. The master seems to feel that he is benefitting from having a slave despite the enormous financial and moral obligations. The bottom line is that he enjoys having a slave. The Bet Din insists that he act out the power he has over his slave by piercing the slave’s ear, marking him as a slave, his slave.

The slave physically experiences his master’s power and desire for power. Bet Din is forcing the slave, who “love his master,” to confront his master’s love for him, on what it is based.

When first purchased, the master was helping the slave pay off his debt. The master accepted responsibility for the slave and his family. The master was instructed to restore the slave’s sense of self. The master, who was to heal him, now enjoys the power. The slave who is willing to serve such a man is a slave in essence. He remains, whether physically free or not, a slave forever. His ear is permanently marked as a person who chose to be a slave to someone who thrives in power over others. He never “left” Egypt.

This is why I insist that the second blessing of the Amidah, “Gevurot,” is not praise of God’s power, but ‘Empowerment.’ God’s power is never used over us, but for us to fully realize our potential. God is not the master who is willing for the slave to so remain, but the master Who pushes His servants out the door, into the world, and the responsibilities of freedom.

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