This week's Torah portion, Mishpatim, makes an abrupt shift from storytelling to legalism. Having received the revelation at Sinai last week, and having entered into covenant with God, we're deluged with a set of ethical commandments instructing us how to behave.
This portion contains verses that ring out for me: the order not to ill-treat any widow or orphan (in other words, to be good to those who are most vulnerable and disenfranchised), and multiple instances of the verse that Torah repeats most often, "You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." Too, this portion contains verses I have to struggle to love: laws about what to do if your ox wanders off and gores somebody, what penalties a thief should have to pay if he's caught, and the appropriate use of the death penalty.
But my Radical Torah post this week focuses on none of these. I chose to write about the very beginning of the portion, which talks about freeing slaves, and what to do with a slave who doesn't want freedom:
Starting now, the Israelites are responsible for transforming their lives and the lives of those under their care, just as their lives have been transformed. But what to do when someone shies away from transformation?
Pierce his ear, Torah tells us; having rejected freedom, he is a slave for life. The ear-piercing is a sign of ownership. In one sense, the doorpost serves as the solid backdrop against which the actual piercing takes place. But the doorway has metaphorical meaning, as well. He who chooses slavery stands not only in a physical doorway, but in a figurative doorway between one state and another. When his ear is pierced against the doorpost, the blood deposited there — however scant it might be — evokes the bloodied lintels of the Israelites in Egypt, on the cusp of their own transformation from slaves into people who are free. In this case, though, the transformation is stalled, the new life stillborn.
How does this resonate for us today, in a culture where slavery is no longer practiced and we are neither slave-holders nor slaves?
Read the whole thing here: Choosing liberation.
On a related note: I recently got a comment from David, who said he enjoys my musings on Judaism but what will keep him coming back here is my poetry. I don't post poems here often, but that comment happened to arrive just as I was working on a poem inspired by the same verses from Mishpatim that sparked my commentary at RT. In gratitude for the comment, and in hopes that the poem will resonate for some of you, I'm posting the poem under the "Continue reading..." tag. Think of this post as Torah commentary, two flavors. I hope you enjoy.
The servant may learn
to like constriction:
to find the known place
in the known order
by possibility's expanse.
But that path leads
to the doorpost
with her own blood, ear
pierced against the lintel,
the future she can’t know
she's growing toward
may be irrevocable.
How quickly we forget
the road ever forked.