Parshat Mishpatim, which we are reading this week, has among its many thought-provoking ideas one that I find particularly odd, but also poignantly important in these times.
The parshah tells us that at the end of six years of work, a man who has acquired a Jewish slave – as a way, for example, for the slave to pay restitution for a theft – must allow the slave to go free. However, if the slave indicates that he would prefer to remain a slave, even after his debt and time have been served, he may do so with the enactment of a very odd ritual. The master is required to take an awl and use it to bore a hole through the ear of the slave while standing against the doorpost of the home.
Rashi, apparently bothered by this ritual, asks what the significance is of such an odd action? What is the message in drilling a hole into a person’s ear that has some relevance to being a slave?
Rashi answers the question by quoting from the Talmud: “The ear that heard on Sinai ‘You are to be slaves to Me’ and nevertheless chose to sell himself into slavery (acquiring a different master for himself) and then chose to remain in servitude when he had the opportunity to go free is deserving of punishment.”
Well, that’s all well and good, but I certainly have a problem with this. It was not his ear that was at fault, but his brain. The ear is a receptacle for hearing sound, but it’s his brain that did not actualize what he heard. The ear did its job, while the brain, clearly, did not. Perhaps they should have punched a hole in his brain, rather than his ear, since the slave certainly heard what had been said at Mount Sinai, but he simply didn’t allow it to enter into his brain!
The answer is, in fact, it’s the ear’s fault, because the message remained only in the ear. The trouble with this person is that he heard, externally, but he did not listen. He didn’t internalize the message of, “They shall be slaves to Me; not slaves to other slaves.” That was his sin. The message remained only in the ear. It literally went in one ear and out the other.
How clearly we see this in today’s TV-watching, moviegoing and sports-following society. We in many ways have become a society of spectators, even in relation to our own lives. We don’t allow messages to enter our psyche, but rather we let them sit, externally, in our ear, not entering our brain.
We watch life, even our own lives, and believe that there’s nothing we can do to change. We are what we are. But in reality, if we only allow the messages of the Torah, our Jewish tradition, to enter from our ear into our consciousness, we will be able to free ourselves from our own bonds of slavery, slavery to what we allow ourselves to remain as, rather than who we can become.
Taking the Torah’s messages from our ear and bringing it into our brain – that is, truly listening to the message, not just passively hearing it – teaches us that we can become as great, as good and as spiritual as we want to be, and become the person we truly want to become.
Rabbi Avram Rothman is spiritual leader of the Thornhill Community Shul in Thornhill, Ont.