Our grandson, Shmuel ha Levi Jungreis, was kind enough to buy us a copy of the Artscroll volume “Rav Pam on the Haftaras,” in which the late Rosh Yeshiva offers his beautiful insights on the relationship of the haftaras to the respective Torah Portion and the contents of the haftaras themselves.
I would like to share with you some thoughts on this week’s Haftara. With his finely-tuned sense of empathy, Rabbi Pam discusses the effect of a slave’s dismissal. “A master becomes attached to his slave, whom he has trained for a long period of time to know how properly to perform his household duties and routines…. This may take place when the master is already an old man, when he urgently needs the help, but no longer has the energy to train a new slave.” This explanation helps us understand the master’s temptation to retain the services of those upon whom he has come to depend. This could amount to a tremendous temptation.
The punishment, however, for abrogating the law of freeing slaves, as described in this haftara, is terrible. “Therefore, says Hashem: You did not listen to Me to proclaim freedom, every man for his brother and every man for his fellow. Behold! I proclaim you to be free – the word of Hashem – for the sword, for the plague and for the famine, and I shall make you an object of horror for all the kingdoms of the earth (Jeremiah 34:17; Haftaras Mishpatim)
With these words, we can begin to understand how the fearsome Exile began, “mida keneged midah … measure for measure!” For refusing to free our slaves as prescribed by the Torah, we ourselves became slaves! Sword, plague and famine were given “freedom” to afflict us … until this very day! We should learn from this and take to heart the responsibility to fulfill every detail of Torah Law. But why should there be such an awesome penalty for failure to return the Jewish slave to freedom?
Let’s turn the question around. As difficult as it is for a master to free his slave, so it would be for the slave to leave his master. The master provides a safe and secure home. All his needs are met; he is required simply to carry out his regular duties and his life is complete. The slave learns to rely totally upon his master. “If the slave shall say, ‘I love my master, my wife and my children. I shall not go free,’ then his master shall bring him to the judges and shall bring him to the door of to the doorpost, and his master shall bore through his ear with the awl, and he shall serve him forever.” (Exodus 21:5-6)
Why should permission for the slave to remain with his master be predicated upon the painful and embarrassing ritual of boring a hole through his ear? This requirement implies that the Torah does not look favorably upon the slave’s desire to remain permanently in this comfortable environment. What is wrong with this scenario?
I believe the answer to this question provides insight into our contemporary world and its terrible troubles. A Jew becomes a slave because his lifestyle is deficient. “What is it about the ear that it should be bored, of all the organs of the body? [The Tanna] Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai said, ‘This ear that heard at Mount Sinai, ‘You shall not steal,’ and [nonetheless] he went and stole, let it be bored’…. And if he sold himself [because of poverty, the following reasoning applies:] An ear that heard at Mount Sinai, ‘for the Children of Israel are slaves unto Me,’ and he went and acquired a [different] master for himself, let it be bored.
“[The Tanna] Rabbi Shimon expounded … What makes a door and a doorpost unique ….? Hakadosh Baruch Hu said, ‘The door and the doorpost that were witnesses in Egypt, when I skipped over the lintel and the two doorposts and I said, ‘For the Children of Israel are slaves unto Me …. They are My slaves and not slaves of slaves, [despite which], this person [who wants to extend his term of servitude], went and acquired a [different] master for himself, [it is fitting that] his ear should be bored in their presence.’” (Rashi on Exodus 21:6)
A person made a mistake; he wants to rectify his life. The Torah provides a way, which includes temporarily subordinating himself to a master. But the perpetuation of slavery is a state in which he is not making the requisite changes in his life; he is perpetuating a deficient state.
Today, in a world defined by the values of an alien culture descended from Edom, it is easy to remain “slaves to the master.” It is easy to slide into the comfortable life we see around us, the pursuit of empty goals. We have become “slaves of slaves” instead of servants of the Lord of the Universe, Who desires that our one goal in life should be the acquisition of Torah values and the elevation of our souls to the point that our one desire is to dwell in His Presence. As King David says, “Achas shoalti … one thing I asked of Hashem, that … I shall dwell in the House of Hashem all the days of my life.” (Psalm 27)
The Torah wants us to know that, as soon as we become comfortable in the House of Slavery, our life is over! The path slides down precipitously into Exile, a living death!
My friends, our fate is in our hands! We can free ourselves from slavery to Edom and return to our glorious role as servants of Hashem! Only then will we see the Great Day which He promises us, when “I shall bring back their captivity and show them mercy!” (Jeremiah 33:26; Haftaras Mishpatim)