The Slavery Riddle
The gavel bangs down, and the room falls silent. The defendant approaches
and stands before the three solemn judges. One of them begins to
speak. “Young man, you have completed your six-year term of indenture and
are free to return to a life of liberty. But you wish to remain a Jewish
slave in your Jewish master’s house and not take on the responsibilities
of liberty. You heard the Creator declare, ‘The Jewish people are my
slaves,’ and yet you choose to be the slave of a slave! Therefore, we will
drill your right ear. Then you may remain indentured until the Jubilee
This scene dramatizes the instructions with which this week’s parashah
opens. But how are we to understand them? When a person violates any of
the commandments he “heard,” the Torah does not require that we physically
drill a hole into his ear. Why then are we instructed to use this drastic
method to point out the folly of choosing slavery to humans over slavery
Let us consider for a moment. A master has complete control over his slave
and demands absolute obedience. We consider this a negative relationship
to which we attach the pejorative term slavery. Parents and kings also
have complete control and demand absolute obedience. Yet we consider these
positive relationships. How do they differ from each other?
The answer is really quite simple. The slavemaster exercises authority to
serve his own interests. The parent and the king exercise authority for
the benefit of their children and subjects, and if they lose sight of this
purpose, their authority loses its legitimacy.
When Hashem took the Jewish people out of Egyptian bondage on the
condition of their absolute subordination and obedience, it was clearly
not to serve His own needs. What could we possibly give Him that He does
not already have? Hashem, by definition, is perfect and without needs.
Rather, our subordination was completely for our own benefit. By loving
Hashem unreservedly and submitting completely to His wisdom and will, we
would rise above our mundane physical existence and elevate ourselves to
the realm of the divine. By accepting the values and ideals of the Torah,
we would free ourselves from the tyranny of our corporeal needs and
pursuits, and experience the exhilaration of the transcendent expansion of
our souls, minds and spirits. This was not slavery in the negative sense.
It was the priceless gift of absolute attachment to the Creator of the
Universe. It was an opportunity to bring ourselves to the highest levels
of existence and fulfillment.
The Jewish slave who chose to remain in bondage heard Hashem speak of us
as His “slaves” - but he did not really hear. To him, slavery to Hashem
and to a man were one and the same, and to suit his comfort and
convenience, he chose slavery to a man. Therefore, we drill his ear as a
symbolic penetration to his consciousness, to help him truly “hear” what
Hashem had said. As a “slave” of the Creator, he had been given the
opportunity to gain eternal life on the very highest level, and instead,
he chose the base existence of a bonded slave who lived only to fill his
Two friends went to study in the school of a famous philosopher in a
distant city. The older one, a brilliant fellow, attended all the lectures
of the philosopher religiously. The younger one, however, also devoted
every waking moment to the philosopher, hanging onto his every word,
observing his every movement, running to fulfill his slightest wish. Two
years later, when their course of study was completed, both friends did
extremely well on their examinations. Nevertheless, only the younger was
invited to join the faculty.
“Why not me?” the older fellow wanted to know. “I did even better than my
friend. I got a perfect score on my examination, didn’t I?”
“Indeed, you did,” the philosopher replied. “You know all the answers
about philosophy, but it has never become part of you. You are no
philosopher. Your friend, however, subordinated himself to me completely
and became a philosopher.
In our own lives, we sometimes need to take a step back and evaluate the
focus and direction of our lives. We struggle and strive in order to live
as we choose - to be free. But somehow, we never seem to break free. Even
when we achieve financial success, there are always responsibilities,
obligations and distractions that direct our lives.
Although we can never escape the entanglements of life, we can find
freedom in another direction. We can subordinate ourselves completely to
the will of our loving Creator. By welding ourselves to Him, our spirits
can drink the heady wine of true liberty even as we continue to grapple
with the demands of living in this world.
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Naftali Reich and Torah.org.
Rabbi Reich is on the faculty of the Ohr Somayach Tanenbaum Education Center.