Parshas Mishpatim begins with the laws of the eved ivri, an indentured servant sold by the courts for having stolen. Why, though, are the difficulties of such an individual discussed in the Torah immediately following the awesome revelation of Har Sinai?
Sefer Hi Sichasi offers an interesting insight. He cites the Talmud (Kiddushin 22a), which states, “Acquiring a Hebrew slave is like acquiring a master for oneself” – since an eved ivri is treated as his master’s equal. For example, if there is only one bed, one pillow, or one blanket, the servant gets it. He sleeps comfortably while the master sleeps without the amenity.
But who would want a slave under such conditions? Sefer Hi Sichasi argues that only a humanitarian would. By acquiring him and bringing him into his home to experience a life of honesty and morality, he gives the thief an opportunity to turn over a new leaf. In a Torah environment, the thief can become transformed.
With this explanation we can understand why Shemos 21:5 speaks of an indentured servant deciding at the conclusion of his six-year term, “I love my master…I shall not go free.” Aware of the benefit and inspiration he gained by living with his master, the servant prefers to remain in his home.
Yet, the Torah tells us that if the eved ivri makes this choice, his master must pierce his ear with an awl. This act seems cruel, but it actually is kind. Our sages note that “gemilus chassadim” is an interesting phrase because the root of “gemilus” means to finish, as in Bereishis 21:8: “vayigdal hayeled vayigamal – the child grew and he stopped nursing.” Our sages state that the essence of kindness includes an element of finishing, or withdrawal, in order to allow the recipient of the kindness to become independent.
In the case of the eved ivri, his master provides him a sanctuary, but he must also teach him how to forge ahead, take responsibility, and become self-reliant. As the adage goes, “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat today; teach a man to fish and he will eat forever.” The piercing of the servant’s ear represents the failure of the master to foster the servant’s autonomy and the disinclination of the servant to become independent.
A major philanthropist from Toronto, Canada who maintained a strong connection with HaGaon Rav Shach – the rosh yeshiva of Ponovezh – would always stop at his home for a beracha when he went to Eretz Yisrael.
Once, as the philanthropist waited his turn to meet with the rosh yeshiva before he departed the country, a man seeking a beracha for his 14-year-old son came through the door. Seeing the philanthropist, the father asked him if he wouldn’t mind allowing him and his son to see Rav Shach first, promising that it would be a very quick meeting.
The philanthropist said he didn’t mind. However, when the father and son entered the room of the rosh yeshiva, the door suddenly closed behind them, and they did not emerge for quite some time. The wealthy man realized he had to leave to catch his flight and, deeply disappointed, asked the gabbai to apologize to Rav Shach for not waiting but he had no choice.
Two-and-a-half hours later, the door opened, and both father and son emerged faces glowing and smiling broadly. Upset at the turn of events, the gabbai asked the man, “What did you do? One of our most generous benefactors had to leave without getting a beracha from the rosh yeshiva.”
“I didn’t do anything,” apologized the man. “My son had lost his interest in learning and I came for a quick beracha. But when Rav Shach heard why I had come, he immediately shut the door and said that he could not merely give my son a beracha. He needed to nurture his passion for Torah learning. So he immediately turned to my son with great warmth, love, and endearment and asked him what he was learning.
“When my son said he was learning Bava Metzia, the rosh yeshiva rose from his chair and took down two Gemaras. With patience, solicitude, and sweetness, the rosh yeshiva then proceeded to learn a sugya with my son, ensuring that he grasped all its concepts and complexities.
“My son was deeply touched by the personal attention and concern that Rav Shach gave him, and after two and a half hours of learning together with the rosh yeshiva, he was imbued with inspiration and enthusiasm that will last a lifetime.”