Rabbi Eliakim Koenigsberg
A Special Relationship
In Parshas Mishpatim the Torah presents a collection of various halachos. This in itself is noteworthy since we would imagine that after the dramatic description of ma'amad Har Sinai in Parshas Yisro the Torah would continue by discussing lofty principles, and yet the Torah seems to get "bogged down" with details. But what is even more puzzling is the fact that the parsha begins with the halachos of eved ivri, a Jewish slave. Why choose this topic as a starting point for the parsha?
The halacha is that if an eved ivri declares after six years of work that he loves his master and would like to remain his slave, then his ear is pierced and he works for the master until yoveil. Rashi (21:6) quotes the statement of Chazal (Kiddushin 22b), "Why is the ear pierced? The ear that heard on Har Sinai, 'For Bnei Yisrael are my slaves,' and he went and acquired another master for himself, let it be pierced."
If the slave's ear is pierced because he chose another master for himself, then why wait for six years until we pierce the ear? Why not pierce the ear when the person initially sells himself? After all, that is when he first acquires a new master. The Sefer HaMiknah (Kiddushin 22b) explains that someone who sells himself because he is unable to earn a livelihood is not held accountable for his actions. Since he sold himself under financial duress he is not viewed as one who chose to acquire a new master. But if after six years he refuses to start out again on his own, and instead he declares that he prefers to remain a slave to his master, then he is considered to have chosen a master for himself and he is punished for his decision.
Why is the eved ivri criticized for wanting to remain with his master? The fact is the life of an eved ivri is not overly burdensome. He may not be forced to do any hard labor (Vayikra, 25:43). His master must give him time off to perform mitzvos. Even his food, drink and bedding must be equal to that of his master (Kiddushin 22a). Chazal go so far as to say, "Whoever acquires a slave has acquired a master for himself (ibid.)" In such circumstances, it probably is easier for the slave to observe mitzvos. Why does the Torah fault the eved for wanting to continue such an arrangement?
Perhaps the answer is that the longer the eved stays with his master, the less he feels dependent on Hakadosh Boruch Hu. With all his needs provided for him, he is comfortable and at ease with his situation. He does not feel the need to reach out to Hakadosh Boruch Hu for his livelihood. So even if he does continue to observe mitzvos as a slave, by staying with his master he will be missing that yearning for heavenly assistance that is so essential to a Jewish soul.
A Torah way of life is not just about mitzvah observance; it is about having a relationship with Hakadosh Boruch Hu and feeling dependent on Him. Chazal comment, "Why were our forefathers barren? Because Hakadosh Boruch Hu desires the tefillos of tzadikim" (Yevamos 64a.) Rav Eliyahu Dessler explains that Hashem certainly does not need the tefillos of tzaddikim. Rather, he places tzadikim in challenging situations for their own benefit so that they will call out to Him in tefilla and develop a closer connection to Him (see Michtav M'Eliyahu, vol. 4 p. 63). Similarly, the Gemara says (Pesachim 118a), "Providing sustenance for a person is as difficult as the splitting of the sea." The Rashbam explains that although, in reality, it is not difficult for Hashem to provide for each individual, He makes it seem challenging to earn a living so that people will reach out to Him in tefilla and ask for mercy.
Having all of one's needs provided for him is not always a blessing. Sometimes it might even be a curse. The Chiddushei HaRim (cited in Pardes Yosef, Bereishis) understands that this was the curse that Hashem gave the snake after he caused the sin of the eitz hada'as. Hashem tells the snake, "And you shall eat dust (of the earth) all the days of your life. (Bereishis, 3:14)" This seems like a blessing because dust is always readily available for the snake. But the Chiddushei HaRim explains that in fact this is the greatest curse. Hashem provided the snake's food up front not because He wanted to make it easier for the snake, but because He did not want to have any ongoing relationship with him. And there is no greater curse than losing one's connection with Hakadosh Boruch Hu.
This can explain why the Torah criticizes the eved ivri for wanting to remain with his master after six years. The Torah understands that sometimes a person might feel the need to sell himself to ease his financial burdens. But that is not an appropriate long term solution because the slave's continued dependence on his master could undermine his relationship with Hakadosh Boruch Hu, and that is something the Torah is not willing to risk.
The lesson of the eved ivri is an appropriate sequel to Parshas Yisro because it highlights the deeper meaning of kabbolas haTorah. When Klal Yisrael received the Torah, they were not simply accepting to scrupulously observe all of the mitzvos of the Torah. They were agreeing to enter into a new relationship with Hakadosh Boruch Hu, one that should not be taken for granted or traded for financial independence.