PIERCING THE CLOUDS
The beginning of this week's portion describes the procedure which a servant must undergo should he desire to continue to serve his master upon the completion of his required term of service.
The beginning of this week's portion describes the procedure which a servant must undergo should he desire to continue to serve his master upon the completion of his required term of service. The servant is brought to the door, "and his master shall bore through the servant's ear with the awl" (Exodus 21:6). Why was his ear pierced? What is the significance of this process taking place in proximity to a door? The answers to these questions will hopefully illuminate the nature of our role as Jews in this world.
Rashi, the fundamental commentator on the Torah, explains that the ear which heard Hashem exclaim on Mount Sinai, "The Children of Israel are servants to Me" (Leviticus 25:55), deserves to be subject to this ordeal because the person extended his servitude to a human being on his own volition. Such an individual failed to be cognizant of the fact that we are optimally servants to Hashem, and to no one else. By voluntarily continuing to serve his master and thus devote himself to spending his time carrying out menial tasks, the servant is giving up opportunities to otherwise engage in Torah pursuits.
In addition, Rashi explains why the door is germane to this procedure. He notes that the door served as witness to Hashem's "passing over" the Jewish households during the last of the Ten Plagues. It was on that first holiday of Passover that the Children of Israel became free of the shackles from Egyptian bondage; but this wasn't freedom in a vacuum - at that moment we became servants to Hashem. At the giving of the Torah, the Jewish people uttered, "na'aseh v'nishma - All that Hashem has spoken we will do and we will listen" (Exodus 24:7). Our ancestors, along with us today, entered into a covenant with Hashem to adhere to His laws, to serve Him, to be His "am kadosh" - holy nation. The presence of the door reminds the servant that ultimately we serve only Hashem.
The episode of the servant thus sensitizes us to the need to internalize within ourselves the fact that our purpose in life is to do Hashem's will as it is outlined for us in the Torah. A severe problem facing us today is that we are susceptible to making the same kind of errant choices the servant made. How many times does the pursuit of status engulf our every free moment? How many times do we focus on our children's grades in school, but not on their character development? How many times do we put off going to synagogue or attending a Torah class because of frivolous concerns? We have, of our own free will, become slaves to the material. Money and its accompanying success are not inherently evil; what is a concern is our establishment of priorities. Material wealth, business acumen, and communal prestige should not be the goal, but rather the means to better serve Hashem. Rather than being self-serving endeavors in and of themselves, such pursuits can be incorporated into our role as servants to Hashem. Making an honest living, contributing to worthy causes, and being a role model are all avenues whereby we can fulfill our purpose in life.
This theme is nicely alluded to at the end of this week's portion where the Torah describes Moses' ascension of Mount Sinai, surrounded by a cloud, to receive the Torah (Exodus 24:18). Rashi indicates that this cloud was "some kind of smoke" through which Hashem forged Moses a path. If you have ever traveled on an airplane that took off in overcast weather, you may have noticed that after the plane emerged through the clouds, there was absolute clear sky and sunshine. Likewise, a person may harbor an outlook on life from a perspective "beneath the clouds", seeing life's purpose against the backdrop of Western ideals. If such an individual, however, would make an effort to climb above the clouds and see the world from the Torah's perspective, the truth and beauty of our role as Hashem's servants would be readily apparent.
When Mashiach (the Messiah) comes, these clouds will be removed for everyone. Until then, we must reinforce our struggle to better understand our function as Hashem's holy nation. For our part, attempts to penetrate the clouds that camouflage the spiritual core of our existence must be made. There is an explanation that only when Nachshon ben Aminadav, of the tribe of Judah, made the effort to enter the waters of the Red Sea up to his neck did Hashem part the sea for the Jewish people. All it takes is a first step on our part, and Hashem will guide us the rest of the way, making a path to a clearer awareness of His majesty. The clairvoyance one will obtain by reaching out to Hashem will result in living a life devoted to the sanctification of Hashem's name on this earth. King Solomon aptly concluded, "The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: "Fear G-d and observe His commandments" (Ecclesiastes 12:13).
Daniel Lasar is a third-year student at Emory Law School in Atlanta.
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