Unwrapping the body of Torah

Choosing liberation (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's portion back in 2006, originally published at now-defunct blog Radical Torah. Enjoy!

As Rabbi Diane Cohler-Esses notes, the shift from last week's Torah portion to this week's can be jarring. "Going from Yitro to Mishpatim we come down the mountain with a real thud," she writes. "Gone are the salacious family stories of Genesis and the dramatic national birth story of Exodus. Starting with this week’s parsha, sitting in synagogue week after week, one can hear yawns all around. What happened to the joy of sheer story?"

And, what's more, the portion begins with a mishpat -- a mitzvah of justice, a commandment concerning itself with righteousness -- detailing the obligations of slave ownership. Slave ownership? We've just read and relived the story of the Israelites' transformation from slaves into free and covenanted people, and now we're kicking off a long set of legal ins and outs with a rule about owning Israelite slaves?

Well, technically it's a rule about freeing Israelite slaves, though there's an exception which proves it:

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 then remain his slave for life.

Rabbi Cohler-Esses is not alone in observing that this first mishpat places the Israelites -- and, by extension, us -- in a new role. 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? As many of our Passover haggadot remind us, slavery comes in many forms. It is possible to become enslaved to our jobs, to the impossible standards by which we judge ourselves, to other people's images of who we should be. Slavery's limitation of circumstance can become familiar, and therefore comfortable. As one teaching about charoset has it, our edible representation of mortar is good to the palate because slavery's familiarity can be sweet.

This week's portion reminds us to take care lest we become accustomed to the familiarity of our constricted circumstances, and choose them over frightening -- but ultimately valuable -- freedom. She who chooses servitude diminishes her possibilities. In so doing, she sacrifices not only the droplet of blood the ear-piercing draws forth, but also the ability to see possibility. Choosing servitude is a turning-away, and Torah tells us it changes one in ways that are irrevocable.

Each of us who chooses freedom over servitude -- to expectations, to work, to the ego -- mimics the communal choice the ancient Israelites made when they followed Moses out of Mitzrayim, that Narrow Place. It is a basic human choice, but it is not an easy one. When we are free, there is always the risk that we will fall short. There is always the risk that we will become lost in the wilderness of proliferating choices, and that when we find our way to a place we recognize we will be met with the request that we continue to grow in maturity and responsibility. There is always the risk of failure.

But to do otherwise is unthinkable. It is to turn our backs on possibility and opportunity, to prefer stasis, and that is not the Jewish choice. As this week's Torah portion reminds us, an Israelite who chooses lasting servitude is marked, and her development is frozen at the moment of that unchangeable marking. It is our obligation, as modern-day readers of Torah, to be both the slave-holder who declares freedom, and the slave who takes the leap of choosing it, again and again.

And what to make of the seven-year timeframe? Seven evokes Shabbat and sabbatical, of course, though I see another possible resonance here. Every seven years, I'm told, we replace our skin entirely: the cells of our largest organ, the one that serves as the boundary between inside and outside, create themselves anew. As we regenerate our physical boundary, it is incumbent upon us to regenerate our emotional and spiritual boundaries, too -- and to do so in a way that allows us to continually choose liberation for ourselves and those around us.

God, infinite and ever-changing, help us be brave enough to change along with You, in accordance with Your will -- and to find that change not threatening, but enriching, to our sense of who we are and who we aim to become.