This is where it was all leading. The miraculous ten plagues. The
triumphant Exodus from Egypt. The incredible parting of the sea. The
spectacular revelation of the Divine Presence on Mount Sinai. The
declaration of the Ten Commandments. Everything was pointing toward
the acceptance of the Torah by the Jewish people. And now it had all
come to pass. It was time to get down to the business of learning what
the vast Torah was all about.
So what were the first laws Moses taught the Jewish people in the
desert encampments? Did they describe the observance of the Sabbath
day? The celebration of the festivals? The guidelines for kosher food?
Not at all. Moses begins by telling the people about a Jewish thief
who is sold into bondage in a Jewish home for six years so that his
victim can be repaid. What is so critical about these laws that they are
given such high priority?
Let us take a closer look at this Jewish bondsman. What if after six
years, when his term of bondage expires, he decides to stay on? After
all, the Torah instructs the Jewish master to share all the comforts of
home with his Jewish bondsman. What if the bondsman finds this
situation secure and pleasant and doesn’t want to leave? The Torah
tells us he must be brought to the doorpost. Then his ear, which heard
Hashem say, “The Jewish people are My servants,” not servants of
servants, must be drilled through with an awl.
Why does the Torah prescribe such a harsh punishment for this
bondsman who chooses to remain in his master’s house?
The commentators explain that the attitude of the bondsman who
chooses to remain in his master’s house is antithetical to the very
essence of the Exodus from Egypt. Clearly, he views the redemption
from Egyptian bondage in purely physical terms. In Egypt, the Jewish
people suffered material privation and dreadful working conditions, but
now they could enjoy the fruits of their own labor and live in relative
comfort. If the Jewish master’s house provided material comfort and
security, then it was perfectly acceptable to live in this sort of gilded
But that was not the primary purpose of the Exodus. Hashem had
not wrenched them free from the grasp of the Egyptians simply to give
them the creature comforts of life. He brought them forth to spiritual
freedom, to a state of personal liberation in which each individual would
have unlimited opportunities to rise to the highest levels of spiritual
achievement. He brought the Jewish people forth from Egypt so that
they could connect with their Creator, so that the divine spark within
each of them would flare into a splendid spiritual flame.
A bondsman, under constant obligation to his master, cannot
undertake this spiritual journey. Therefore, if he chooses to remain, he
is choosing the material over the spiritual, completely missing the
message of the Exodus. In response, his ear is drilled, symbolizing the
penetration beyond the superficial to the essence within. The bondsman
must learn the deeper meaning of the Exodus and the role of “My
servants.” Being the servant of Hashem does not connote physical
bondage but rather spiritual freedom. This is the essence of the
A successful businessman met an old schoolmate in a train station.
The man was gaunt and unshaven, and his clothing was threadbare.
The small satchel in his hand obviously held all his earthly belongings.
“What happened to you, my friend?” asked the businessman. “We
all thought you were on the road to success.”
“I have successfully found freedom. I am a travelling preacher.”
“Freedom? You call this freedom?”
“Yes, I do,” said the preacher. “Tell me, are you free?”
“Me?” said the businessman. “Of course, I am free.”
“You are mistaken,” said the preacher. “You are a prisoner of your
large house with its large mortgage, your business, your employees,
your customers, your bills, your investments, everything. You cannot
make a move without giving accountings in every direction. I, on the
other hand, am free to do whatever my spirit moves me to do.”
In our own lives, we all value and cherish the opportunities available
to us in the democratic and affluent society in which we live. But let us
not confuse material success with freedom. If the price of our material
success is the stultification of our spirits than we have only achieved a
gilded bondage and cheated ourselves of the unlimited rewards which
only true spiritual freedom so richly provides.
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Naftali Reich and Torah.org.
Rabbi Reich is on the faculty of the Ohr Somayach Tanenbaum Education Center.