|This D’var Torah is in Z’chus L’Ilui Nishmas my sister Kayla Rus Bas Bunim Tuvia A”H, my grandfather Dovid Tzvi Ben Yosef Yochanan A”H, my uncle Reuven Nachum Ben Moshe & my great aunt Rivkah Sorah Bas Zev Yehuda HaKohein.
It should also be in Zechus L’Refuah Shileimah for:
-My father Bunim Tuvia Ben Channa Freidel
-My grandfather Moshe Ben Breindel, and my grandmothers Channah Freidel Bas Sarah, and Shulamis Bas Etta
-Mordechai Shlomo Ben Sarah Tili
-Noam Shmuel Ben Simcha
-Chaya Rochel Ettel Bas Shulamis
-Nechama Hinda Bas Tzirel Leah-Zalman Michoel Ben Golda Mirel-Ariela Golda Bas Amira Tova
-And all of the Cholei Yisrael
-It should also be a Z’chus for an Aliyah of the holy Neshamos of Dovid Avraham Ben Chiya Kehas—R’ Dovid Winiarz ZT”L, Miriam Liba Bas Aharon—Rebbetzin Weiss A”H, as well as the Neshamos of those whose lives were taken in terror attacks (Hashem Yikom Damam), and a Z’chus for success for Tzaha”l as well as the rest of Am Yisrael, in Eretz Yisrael and in the Galus.
**Note: This D’var Torah is a re-written, much edited, and expanded version of an old one I wrote a few years ago.
מִּשְׁפָּטִים ● Mishpatim
● Are there subliminal messages in the laws of Eved Ivri? ●
“The Hebrew Slave Story”
The Torah transitions from incredible Divine Revelation of Kabbalas HaTorah to passages of law as it proceeds to present the intricate civil laws, famously known as the “Mishpatim,” translated commonly as “ordinances.” Among these “Mishpatim,” the Sidrah discusses laws pertaining to court, manslaughter, theft, damages, etc. However, the first set of laws on this list is that of the servant, particularly the Eved Ivri, the Hebrew Slave—an Israelite who is sold into slavery, either by force because he stole and cannot compensate for it, or on his own accord, because he is destitute and needs a living. Of all Mitzvah topics, why is Eved Ivri the opening one of the Mishpatim to be discussed?
A Permanent Sabbatical
An interesting aspect of the Eved Ivri is that he is sentenced to work for six years and go free at the seventh. If one thinks about this sequence of “working for six” and then “stopping at seven,” one is naturally reminded of the cycles of Shabbos and Sh’mitah. The work schedule of the Eved Ivri parallels that of the weekly Shabbos cycle, but on a macro-scale; concerning Shabbos, we know that the entire Am Yisrael works for six days and rests on the seventh. The personal cycle of the Eved Ivri almost directly parallels that of Sh’mitah, the Sabbatical for land, in which the entire Am Yisrael is commanded to work the land for six years and then leave it fallow in the seventh.
Despite the obvious connections, the case of the Eved Ivri is quite different. The Eved Ivri is not merely to be taking a Sabbatical from his service at this seventh year. He finishes permanently—he goes free. It is not like Shabbos and Sh’mitah where one goes back to the same work for the next cycle. The Eved Ivri doesn’t return to his master after he’s freed; he is free, for good, almost without question. Why must the Eved Ivri completely break away at the end of his “term” in the seventh year to never return?
In actuality, the Eved Ivri doesn’t exactly have to go free at the end of the term. There is another option with a quite peculiar catch that entails an odd procedure. The Torah stipulates as follows:
“V’Im Amor Yomar HaEved Ahavti Es Adoni Es Ishti V’Es Banai Lo Eitzei Chofshi; V’Higisho Adonav El HaElohim V’Higisho Es HaDeles O El HaMezuzah V’Rotza Adonav Es Ozno BaMartzei’a VaAvado L’Olam”-“And if the slave shall surely say [insist], ‘I love my master, my wife and my children—I will not go out to freedom’; Then his master shall make him approach the court, and he shall make him approach the door—or the doorpost—and his master shall bore through his ear with an awl and he shall serve him forever…”1
Now, there are a bunch of noteworthy points in the above passage, both thematic and textual, which need to be addressed.
Firstly, the Torah presents the circumstance in which the Eved does not want to leave his post. He is happy working for his master with the family that was provided for him. We already mentioned that unlike Shabbos and Sh’mitah, in the Eved Ivri’s ideal circumstance, his Sabbatical is a permanent one. It sounds like the opportunity of a lifetime. And yet, in a surprising, further contrast to Shabbos and Sh’mitah, this Sabbatical from working “in the seventh” does not actually appear to be mandatory at all. On the one hand, it can be a permanet Sabbatical—an offer that seems difficult to refuse—and yet, it is an optional Sabbatical. But, why isn’t this Sabbatical mandatory?
Awl or Nothing – “The Ear that Heard”
Now, what is perhaps even more unusual and obscure about the rules of Eved Ivri, are the ramifications of this alternative option; the Israelite who wants to remain an Eved Ivri is taken to court and then to a door to get his ear pierced. Why is it that he needs to get his ear pierced?
Rashi2 quotes the famous, Aggadic interpretation from Rebbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai, explaining that it was his ear that heard G-d at Har Sinai declare: “Don’t steal”3 and “For to Me (Hashem, and to no one else) are the B’nei Yisrael [to be] servants,”4 yet this man went ahead and either stole or sold himself to become a servant. As a result, his ear would take the “punishment.”
We’ve heard this suggestion before, but what does it really mean? How has his ear sinned? The fact that this Eved Ivri heard a command and should not have stolen or sold his services to a mortal is not a due to anything his ear did wrong, but to his own personal actions. It was due to the decisions he made with his free choice, despite what he had heard with his ears. His actions are the “sin” if anything. The “ear that heard” bears no more guilt than the “hand which grabbed” the item he stole or the quill to sign on the dotted line when he was selling his life away. We do not pierce his hands though. Perhaps we should rightfully pierce his brain for making in inappropriate decision.
While we’re at it, if this Eved Ivri gets a hole in his ear for ignoring G-d’s statement and transgressing His words, maybe anyone, not just the Eved Ivri, who violates any transgression, should likewise have his ear drilled through! What makes the ear-piercing procedure unique to the Eved Ivri? Why is only he “penalized” with the piercing of his ear?
“To the Door or to the Mezuzah”—But not really…
But that’s not all. For the Eved Ivri’s ear-piercing procedure, he is taken specifically to a door to get his ear pierced. Now, what purpose does the door fulfill here? The act of piercing an ear can be theoretically accomplished anywhere and perhaps more easily elsewhere. Why does he have to do it at the door?
Moreover, if one looks at our text, the Pasuk actually says, “El HaDeles O El HaMezuzah”-“to the door or to the doorpost,”1 which most of us would understand to mean that there are two options as to where this piercing procedure must occur—either the door or the doorpost. That is what you would think. However, interjects Rashi5, stating that, really, the Eved Ivri not to be taken to the Mezuzah, rather just to the door. Why did the Pasuk seem to include the doorpost as an option then? Rashi elaborates that the doorpost is mentioned just to teach us a comparison, that just as a doorpost stands up straight, perpendicularly, so must the door of choice, for the purposes of this procedure.
Now, what in the world does that mean? Why couldn’t the Torah just spell that out? Why did the Torah mislead us by throwing the “doorpost” into the equation as if that was viable option when it is apparently only the door that is a valid location? The Torah could have simply said that the door must be standing upright if that really was such an important caveat. Why did the Torah need to add this technically inaccurate line, “or to the doorpost”?
“V’Avado L’Olam” – “Eternal” Servitude?
The above wouldn’t be Rashi’s last seeming “reinterpretation” of the simple understanding of this Pasuk. After having his ear pierced by the door, the servant would continue to work for the master as he had opted for. The Torah says, “Va’Avado L’Olam”-“and he shall serve him forever.”1
Now, although forever is quite a long time, it’s not that bad, for Rashi6 pokes in again and argues that the Torah couldn’t really mean forever, as the Torah later7 teaches that every fifty years is the year of Yovel, during which time all servants are set free, including this guy. Accordingly, Rashi says that the word “Olam”-“forever” actually refers to a fifty year period, and in this case, “L’Olam” means until the Yovel year, the fiftieth year, is reached (no matter how far off that may be).
So, if the Torah really meant that this Eved Ivri only remains working until Yovel—at which point he must go free, why didn’t the Pasuk say that? Apparently, contrary to what we argued earlier, the Eved Ivri’s eventual Sabbatical is in fact mandatory, at least once Yovel arrives. Assuming Rashi’s statements are correct, why did the Pasuk throw us off yet again, stating that the Eved Ivri serves “L’Olam”-“forever”?
🙂 “ונשמע נעשה-נעש-נע-נ” 🙂 – “Na’aseh V’Nishma”
Finally, we move away from Eved Ivri for a couple of minutes to address a seemingly separate issue at the end of the Sidrah. After all of the Mishpatim are recorded, the Torah returns to the narrative of Kabbalas HaTorah at Sinai where it repeats some of the details that were mentioned then, but also adds a number of new details to the account that have yet to be recorded.
One such repetition from earlier would be the reiteration of that which the B’nei Yisrael had responded to Moshe before accepting the Torah, “Kal HaDevarim Asheir Diber Hashem Na’aseh”-“All of the matters which Hashem has spoken we shall do.”8
Yet, a major addition to the story which appears in our Sidrah is the B’nei Yisrael’s more famous, expanded version of that earlier proclamation which is recorded shortly after; “Kol Asheir Diber Hashem Na’aseh V’Nishma”-“All of that which Hashem has spoken, we shall do and we shall hear.”9
We’re familiar with the teaching that the B’nei Yisrael were famously praised for pledging to “do,” before even “hearing” what the commandments were, the ultimate expression of faith.10 To take matters a step further, we might point out that is was not just that the B’nei Yisrael said the word “Na’aseh”-“we will do” before “Nishma”-“we will hear,” but based on the text, the Torah records the word “Na’aseh” no fewer than three times before even adding in the “Nishma” part. Thus, in the sequence of the Chumash, it is “Na’aseh,” “Na’aseh,” and finally “Na’aseh V’Nishma,” emphasizing the undoubtedly vital aspect of faithfully doing.
Being that the second part, “V’Nishma”-“and we will hear” was only later included in the pledge, what is its true purpose? At first glance, it seems that the main commitment was that of “Na’aseh,” the aspect of doing. The faith lies in the fact that before even hearing, which is a logistically necessary caveat, we committed to do. And as we’ve mentioned, “Na’aseh” apparently was doing fine on its own for at least two verses. Thus, it would seem that “V’Nishma” was only significant considering that it was preceded by “Na’aseh,” to emphasize the primacy of “Na’aseh.” However, the same Gemara10 that praises the B’nei Yisrael for declaring the words “Na’aseh V’Nishma” in that order actually tells us that six hundred thousand angels descended and fastened two crowns on every single member of the B’nei Yisrael, one corresponding to “Na’aseh,” and one corresponding to “Nishma.” But, if “Na’aseh” was the main point of the commitment, and the point of “Nishma” was merely to highlight and inform the faith of “Na’aseh,” why would there be a separate “crown” corresponding to “Nishma”? Apparently, “V’Nishma” was not just a logistical stipulation, nor was it merely the backdrop for “Na’aseh,” but it adds a fundamentally vital element to the commitment. What is that element? Why, now, was it necessary, for the B’nei Yisrael to add this other dimension to the general pledge at Har Sinai of “V’Nishma”-“and we will hear”?
The Hebrew Slave Story
When considering the deeper meaning of the the laws of Eved Ivri, just the term Eved Ivri, Hebrew slave, appearing at this point in Sefer Shemos, should immediately trigger an alarm. It was not too long ago, in the Torah, that the text discussed the brutal experience of the subjugated Hebrews in Egypt which, at that point, the nation had only recently been freed from. If one connects all of the dots, one might actually see how the laws of Eved Ivri are, in some form, an apparent remodeling of the B’nei Yisrael’s Galus and She’ibud Mitzrayim, their Egyptian Exile and Subjugation, perhaps intended to serve as a spiritual reference point for a Ben Yisrael in exile. This supposed connection between these laws and Galus Mitzrayim would easily why Eved Ivri is presented first of all of the Mishpatim.
Now, how exactly did we get into that mess in Egypt anyway? Well, like the Eved Ivri who is either being punished for his transgressions against fellowman or is taking desperate measures because he is destitute, we could suggest a dual cause to the Egyptian Exile, as the “Hebrews” themselves were not only being punished for sinning against fellowman, as Yosef’s brothers kidnapped him from their father (and, ironically, sold him into slavery), but they too only fell into the snare of Egyptian subjugation because of their desperate need to sustain their families during the famine.
- “Lo Signov”-“Don’t Kidnap”
Interestingly, this would answer a separate question concerning Chazal’s teaching about the piercing of the Eved Ivri’s ear as a response to his ignoring of the command at Sinai, “Lo Signov”—not to steal. There is an obvious issue with this teaching considering that, technically speaking, the command at Sinai of “Lo Signov,” Chazal already teach us, was actually referring to the prohibition against kidnapping, not the theft of monetary assets.11 Perhaps there was an additional, eerie layer of meaning to the ignored command of “Lo Signov” which be explained by our connection between the Eved Ivri and Galus Mitzrayim as the very deed that triggered the Egyptian exile was an act of kidnap. Perhaps, on some level, it is this act, apparently, that the Eved Ivri should be thinking about.
A Permanent Shabbos
If it is so that the laws of Eved Ivri are in a sense, a Mashal or parable pointing back at the lives of the B’nei Yisrael during Galus Mitzrayim, it also makes sense why this servitude is meant to end, and why it is meant to end permanently. This servitude is not the ideal state. It is certainly not meant to be the be-all end-all for this poor Israelite. His Sabbatical is a break from a longer exile, a freedom to serve G-d. It is a permanent Shabbos so that he can serve Hashem, outside the confines of Galus! But, of course, Chazal taught us that, much like the Eved Ivri, most of the B’nei Yisrael sought, not redemption, but the alternative, to remain in Galus.12 “I love my master, my wife, and my children,” sound like the statement of someone who is quite content with his current life situation. The problem here though is that this man is a slave in exile! And yet, he is merely following the model of fout fifths of the B’nei Yisrael who chose not follow Hashem out of exile to make Him their true Master, to have His lofty service as their primary focus and destiny.
Indeed, the Ivri who opts to remain in this lower servitude has, perhaps an optimistic, but ultimately distorted way of looking at his situation. Galus Mitzrayim was a punishment at worst and a necessary, therapeutic means of spiritual atonement and refinement at best, yet most of the B’nei Yisrael actually looked past those means and accepted it as a luxury and a final destination. This popular response to the circumstances of Galus Mitzrayim is evidence that a majority of Am Yisrael missed the point of their exile and the incredible wonders and promises of spiritual freedom that G-d presented before them.
We can argue that similarly, the Eved Ivri who wants to stay in servitude has missed the point of his experience. If he was irresponsible and stole, he is supposed to be worked for it. If he was poor because for whatever reason, G-d wanted him to experience that personal Galus, so now, he is trying to get back on his feet by selling himself, then that too is unideal. The point of his Divinely ordained situation was never that he remain in Galus.
The “Ear” He Ignored
We asked earlier why the Eved Ivri is meant to have a hole drilled in his ear his ear? The teaching suggested by Chazal isn’t immediately clear. His ear heard that he shouldn’t violate the will of G-d? What sin did his ear commit, and why doesn’t everybody who hears and violates a commandment get his ear pierced?
However, in the light of this deeper backstory for the Eved Ivri, the idea might be that since this Eved Ivri was not merely given a command, but these commands represent direct, crucial messages that were directed at him particularly. “Don’t steal” and “You’re G-d’s servant” are statements and reminders that “You’re in Galus—in the unideal state.” It wasn’t merely that he did not obey a commandment, but that he ignored the deeper message and meaning of the “commandments,” shrugged them off, and continued on his merry way, converting his punishment of Galus into a lifestyle choice.
What did the ear do? Nothing, And that was the problem. What is the point of the ear? Obviously, the ear which G-d gave man was meant to enable him to hear—and obviously most importantly, to hear G-d’s commandments. But, that is only the surface of the ear’s job. The more fundamental role of the ear is to serve as the first gate for man’s understanding of G-d’s Will. The ear is meant to carry the message to his brain where the audio information will be processed and understood, and hopefully analyzed for their deeper meaning. But, if man merely hears the sounds, but fails to process and incorporate—if he neglects to truly ponder the message that entered his ear, then his ear is not properly serving that purpose. His ear is of no use if he doesn’t allow the messages entering in to actually penetrate and seep in. Under those circumstances, one simply misses the point.
The Hebrew slave’s ear, which the Hebrew slave has not made good use of, is pierced, perhaps demonstrating how G-d’s message has not pierced through! It is pierced because the Hebrew slave ignored the purpose of his ear. His ear is pierced because he failed to incorporate and therefore ignored those messages which G-d was sending directly to him.
The Mezuzah which “frames” the Door
As many of the B’nei Yisrael missed the point of their Galus, not all of Am Yisrael did. The rest of the nation was given the opportunity to prove its worthiness in preparation for Makkas Bechoros, the Smiting of the Firstborns, as they slaughtered the sheep, the Egyptian deity, and smeared its blood on their lintels and doorposts. This command to the B’nei Yisrael at that time seems to necessarily be the Torah’s intentions when teaching the laws of the Eved Ivri which feature the drawing of blood by a doorway.
Our earlier Rashi2 actually also quotes the teaching of Rebbi Shim’on who makes this exact point, suggesting that the door and the doorpost bore testimony during Makkas Bechoros, as was stated earlier, the B’nei Yisrael are G-d’s servants, and no one else’s. Of course though, the Eved Ivri still chose to acquire a new master. So, what purpose did the doors ultimately serve during Makkas Bechoros? The doors were what separated the G-d fearing Am Yisrael from the idolatrous Egyptians who were subjugated by their own ideologies. Literally, behind every Ivri’s door was a family who recognized only Hashem as the only true Master. How did they demonstrate that? By defying the Egyptian masters and splattering their god’s blood over the doorpost.
That might explain, not only why the door is significant to Eved Ivri, but what the Torah meant when it added, “O El HaMezuzah”-“or to the doorpost.” Yes, the door is the divider between subjugation to Egypt and subjugation to Hashem, and it is therefore at the door where all of the action takes place. However, the Torah goes out of its way to “equate” the door with the doorpost. Why? Because it was the doorposts of B’nei Yisrael that made their doors worth passing over and merited them salvation. “Mezuzah” here modifies “door,” as it is the necessary model for understanding the door’s function in this procedure. Not just any door does one take his Eved Ivri to, but one that is framed by a doorpost, literally and figuratively. We take him to a door that appropriately represents that which we were commanded in Egypt—to put the blood of the host of the Egyptian Exile on the doorpost as a sign that we were separating ourselves from that exile.
“V’Avado L’Olam” – Perpetual Exile
Now, as was mentioned, the Eved Ivri who unfortunately chooses to stay in his servitude can do so, but only serves until Yovel. But, if that is the case, why does the Torah state that he serves “L’Olam”-“forever”? Perhaps, in light of the larger discussion, we can suggest that is because although Yovel literally sets him free, in a sense, he is really not free. G-d can physically rip a person out of his exile, but the question is if the person can rip the exile out of himself. As long as this Ivri would actually opt to remain an Eved, to opt for Galus, emotionally and spiritually, he is like those of the B’nei Yisrael who remained in Egypt. He is still there in a sense—“L’Olam,” perpetually. Indeed, his “Shabbos” ultimately ends up being an “optional Sabbatical,” because at the end of the day, G-d will force no one to aspire to reach greater heights in his spirituality and Avodas Hashem. Certainly, no one will be forced to put in the effort to do so.
Galus in our days is no different. In exile, we’re all Hebrew servants, Avadim Ivri’im, and we are in this position for whatever reason. But it is not the ideal situation, nor should we think of it as our final destination. Even if we thrive in it, we don’t belong here. We have to aspire for something more—for stronger Avodah and to achieve Geulah, true Redemption. We have to properly answer the question of whether we really want out of Galus or we are just sitting tight because “Ahavti Es Adoni”—“I’m happy with my spiritually mediocre situation the way it is.” If we choose the latter and convince ourselves wrongly that our time in Galus is an end in and of itself, we can be stuck “forever.”
The Need for “Nishma”
Am Yisrael rightfully proclaimed “Na’aseh”-“we will do” first, like true Avadim to Hashem. The first step is always to pledge to do Ratzon Hashem no matter what situation Hashem puts us in. But our Avodah is not complete until we reach “Nishma”-“we will hear” which does not merely mean to hear audibly, but as was mentioned earlier, to process, internalize, and understand what it is G-d is saying. “Na’aseh V’Nishma” means “We will do, but we will (also) understand,” and both steps are necessary. We need Nishma—this thorough understanding of why we’re going through with “Na’aseh.” We can’t just go through motions and let G-d’s deeper messages to us fall by the wayside, expecting not to excel to higher levels and at least have the ultimate Geulah on our radar as a serious goal. That is a lack of “Nishma,” a lack of understanding of what we are doing here. It was the Eved Ivri lacked, and it is why his ear that did not service him was pierced. We have to have a true relationship with Hashem which entails an aspiration to get closer to Him and understand His Essence as clearly as we can—to reach the Geulah.
In the end, if we insist on serving G-d, but equally insist on remaining in Galus, in our state of Avdus—if we don’t long to serve Hashem in the most ideal way, we’re missing the point. Like someone who falls asleep while another is talking to him, the words enter his ears and he nods, but the message does not sink in, and he never internalizes the message. Like the Eved Ivri, we have made no use of our ears—our ability to truly hear the higher calling and ultimately understand it. We have to implement “Nishma,” use our ears as a gate towards a deeper realization of how Hashem wants us to serve Him, Him alone, in the highest possible form. We cannot afford to miss the point. We must truly hear the message and aspire for something more.
May we all be Zocheh to understand the function of life in Galus, use it as a means to a higher end goal, hear Hashem’s voice, fulfill His Ratzon on the highest and most optimal level and not only long for the ultimate Geulah, but truly achieve it in the times of Moshiach, Bimehirah Biyomeinu! Have a Great Shabbos!
-Yehoshua Shmuel Eisenberg 🙂
- Shemos 21:5-6
- Citing Kiddushin 22A
- Shemos 20:13
- Vayikra 25:55
- Based on Devarim 15:17, citing Mechilta
- Citing Kiddushin 15B
- Vayikra 25:10
- Shemos 24:3; See also 19:8 where almost these exact words were recorded earlier in Parshas Yisro
- Ibid. 24:7
- Shabbos 88A
- See Rashi to 20:13 citing Mechilta and Sanhedrin 86A.
- See Rashi to 13:18 citing the Mechilta.