BY HENNIE BLACK
In this week’s parsha of Mishpatim, the role of the ear plays prominently. That’s right, the ear. From piercings to its function of hearing, this parsha has us all paying attention.
The role of the ear is central to the concept of “eved ivri,” the Jewish slave. While this concept is anachronistic to our times, it was a common practice in the ancient world. Nevertheless, the role of the slave in Jewish society was radically different than in other ancient cultures of the day.
First off, let us understand how a Jewish person became a slave. If a Jewish man stole and was not able to repay the stolen item or its value, he would acquire the status of a Jewish slave, whereby he would work to pay off his debt. In essence, this was a process of rehabilitation.
While the status of a slave was less than ideal, the Torah stipulates some radical accommodations that the master had to take to ensure that his slave was taken care of and treated properly. For one, the maximum number of years that a man could be a slave was six. As for their treatment, we are told that if there is only one pillow in the master’s house, the master must give it to the slave rather than himself.
On occasion, the slave would choose to stay with his master. While this practice was frowned upon, it was possible in ancient Israelite society upon the adoption of a practice that involves… the ear. The Torah tells us that to keep a Jewish slave, the master would drill a hole in the slave’s ear by his doorpost.
Why is it the ear that is pierced? The Talmud explains that it is the ear that heard G-d at Sinai, the place at which the Jewish people committed themselves to being G-d’s servants. Rashi asks, “How can the ear which heard the words, ‘I am Hashem your G-d,’ accept another master”?
Rashi suggests that this desire to remain a servant was castigated. To indicate this less-than-ideal approach, the Torah tells us that the slave’s ear should be pierced to draw attention to the slave’s misuse of his ears.
Furthermore, our commentaries explain that the slave heard the eighth commandment, “Do not steal,” when he stood at Sinai and heard the 10 Commandments. The slave, it appears, neither heard nor internalized the message that stealing is prohibited, and therefore his ear needs to be pierced.
Of all the five senses, it is the ear that alone is passive. All the other sensory limbs, such as the mouth, nose and eyes, are active. The ear is the only sense that passively receives information. This passivity reflects the mindset of a person who chooses to remain a slave.
Someone who decides to remain a slave chooses a life without responsibility. While he is treated well by his master, he is not the master of his own life—he does not have liberty to do as he pleases, does not have freedom to make his own decisions, and is essentially supported by another person.
While the ear is indeed an organ that passively receives, we are then expected to actively process that information. What we hear and internalize has a powerful impact on our lives. That is why it is critical that we guard our ears and that we are careful of what we hear and listen to. In fact, we are repeatedly instructed in the Torah to “listen” to the word of G-d, which really is an injunction for us to incorporate the teachings into our lives.
One of our most central prayers, the Shema, means “hear.” We have a mitzvah to say the Shema prayer twice a day, to hear the fundamental precepts enumerated in the Shema, to understand them, accept them, and internalize them.
Having established the importance of listening and of using our ears properly, it becomes clearer how an ancient practice such as acquiring a slave is relevant to our lives today.
While slavery to a master is no longer a part of Western society, we have become slaves to many other things in the material world—objects, luxuries, houses, cars, vacations, technology—almost anything that pulls on our desires to the point of being consumed by them.
We are also slaves to societal pressures; we worry about what others think of us and what others will say about us. We often act based on how others will perceive us. Whether by our desire to acquire objects or our concern for how we are perceived by others, it is all too easy to lose focus on serving our ultimate Master.
The Jewish slave in this week’s parsha reminds us that we do not exist to impress others. We are here to be our best selves, to act as the spiritual beings that we are, even if it goes against societal norms and pressures.
Piercing the ear was to teach both the slave and us today about the power of the ear and how best to optimize our hearing to live a blessed life. Let us use our ears to listen to what’s right, to do what is proper, and to act in ways befitting a people who stood at the foot of a mountain and heard the word of G-d.