Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ’Em: Mishpatim 2017

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Pre-Game Chatter: How do we make sense of rules in the Torah that would be unthinkable in today’s society? Do we try to understand them within the context of ancient times? Or do we argue that some should be reversed or discarded?

The Torah portion of Mishpatim immediately confronts a situation that is controversial to us: the notion that some ancient Israelites are allowed to own slaves:

The Pitch: “But if the slave declares, ‘I love my master, and my wife and children: I do not wish to go free,’ his master shall take him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall remain his slave for life.” – Exodus 21:5-6

Swing #1: “Why should the earlobe be pierced? Because it was not put to its intended use. If the ear heard a commandment proclaimed, but its owner did not take to hear what the ear perceived, that ear must have heard scornful language and lascivious talk of which even one drop is said to push away many words of Torah (‘One drop of scorn shoves aside many words of the Law’). Now the soft earlobe was created for the purpose of stopping up the ear to keep it from hearing vulgar talk. Hence, if the ear was corrupted by vulgar speech it is obvious that the lobe was not put to its proper use. Therefore, ‘let it be pierced.’” – The Rabbi of Gur

Swing #2: “What do ear and door have in common? They both can be opened and shut at will.” – Toldot Yitzhak

Swing #3: “The symbolism of this act is not clear. [Theodor] Gaster theorizes that it establishes the serf’s permanent bond to his master’s house, through the blood on the doorpost.” – Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses

Late-Inning Questions: Does the fact that Israelite slaves have the option to voluntarily enter lifelong servitude make this kind of bondage any more palatable? If so, what do you make of the ear-piercing ceremony? Is its meaning limited to symbolism, or is there a practical aspect to it as well? What might you say if you met one of our ancestors who own slaves?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: I wish to make sure the community knows something important about our synagogue: there are two restrooms in our facility located right outside our sanctuary’s side door. These restrooms are individual – they can be locked on the inside, and can be used by any person, regardless of gender. Here at Synagogue Emanu-El, all are welcome.

The Big Inning at the End: While the rule change I mentioned last week certainly is controversial, I am thrilled that Major League Baseball appears to have approved an automatic intentional walk – that is, instead of a pitcher throwing four pitches way outside the strike zone, the pitcher can simply indicate that it wishes to award the batter first base. While this might not subtract that much time from a game, it is a step in the right direction.

Shabbat Shalom!