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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Mishpatim 5776 "The Ear that Heard"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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I have studied many times

The marble which was chiseled for me—

A boat with a furled sail at rest in a harbor.

In truth it pictures not my destination

But my life.

For love was offered me and I shrank from its disillusionment;

Sorrow knocked at my door, but I was afraid;

Ambition called to me, but I dreaded the chances.

Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life.

And now I know that we must lift the sail

And catch the winds of destiny

Wherever they drive the boat.

To put meaning in one’s life may end in madness,

But life without meaning is the torture

Of restlessness and vague desire—

It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.

--Edgar Lee Masters[1]

After the Torah completes its description of the great revelation of Sinai, the Torah launches into a detailed exposition about the practical laws of daily interpersonal living.

Rabbi Avigdor Miller zt’l explained that the Torah immediately segues from the lofty revelation to these laws because ‘idealism without legalism will never endure. The idealistic aspects of the Torah are not enough; it must be cloaked within the mantle of the law.’

The first law which the Torah discusses is that of the Jewish slave. The slave is acquired until the Sabbatical year. During his years of slavery his master is permitted to marry him to his Canaanite maid so that the children produced will be future slaves. When the Sabbatical year arrives the slave is free to leave and return to his home and original family.

“But if the slave will say, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children – I will not go free. Then his master shall bring him to the court and shall bring him to the door or to the doorpost, and his master shall bore through his ear with the awl, and he shall serve him forever.”

Rashi explains that it is specifically the servant’s ear which is pierced because, “The 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.”

What is the significance of the door and the doorway vis-à-vis the slave?

A doorway symbolizes transition and change. One stands before an unknown doorway with a certain measure of trepidation, not knowing what lies behind the door and where proceeding through it will lead him. A door represents instability and diffidence.

When Cain was jealous and angry that Hevel’s offering had been accepted by G-d while his was rejected, G-d told him[2], “If you do not do good, at the entrance sin crouches; its longing is toward you, and you will rule over it.” Man’s free choice – to succumb to the blandishments of his evil inclination or to resist and overcome – is analogous to a doorway. In that sense what lies beyond the doorway is his prerogative.

On Chanukah there is a mitzvah for one to light the menorah opposite the mezuzah on his doorpost[3]. The Mezuzah, which is affixed to our doorpost inclined inward, symbolizes the need for us to spiritually protect our homes from the luring impurities of the outside world. Our homes are to be citadels of holiness, not allowing our traditions to be compromised.

The Chanukah candles, which shimmer glowingly in the darkness outside, represent our mission to illuminate the outside world. Our mission is to be a beacon of light for the entire world, the bastion of morality and sanctity.

Rambam[4] writes that one of the Syrian-Greek’s nefarious decrees was, “One should not shut the door to the entrance of his home, lest he exploit the privacy of his home in the observance of mitzvos.” This decree was a terrible breach of the morality and modesty of a Jewish home. But on a deeper level it represented the inner struggle that each Jew maintained at his doorway. Does he succumb to the Greek’s aesthetic lifestyle, or does he remain behind the threshold, steadfastly maintaining the traditions of his fathers.

The Menorah is lit in the doorway to symbolize our desire to remain resolute in our convictions and not ‘waver in the doorway’.

Kli Yakar writes that the servant’s ear is pierced in the doorway because the Torah granted him ‘an open doorway’, i.e. he had a way to ascend and move beyond his pitiful lifestyle, but he allowed the door of opportunity to slam in his own face.

There are periodically doors that open before us in life. But it requires tremendous courage and conviction to leave the comfort of ritual, trite as it may be, to plunge into the potential of the unknown.

When the servant’s ear is pierced in the doorway it leaves a mark of blood on the doorway. This is reminiscent of an earlier time in our history. On the night before the Egyptian exodus, Moshe commanded the anticipating nation to host their first Pesach Seder. Earlier in the day they were to have taken the blood of the Pesach offering and smeared along their doorposts, symbolizing that their home was a Jewish home. That act symbolized a level of transcendence over their former captors.

Chazal relate that any Jew who did not wish to leave Egypt died during the plague of darkness, when the Egyptians could not witness what was occurring. In all, eighty percent – millions upon millions of Jews - died, just a few weeks prior to the exodus.

They died because they were unwilling to open the door and traverse the threshold. The prospect of leaving the comfort of Egypt, where they had recently become wealthy and powerful, to enter into the vast desert was too daunting and frightening. It was only those who smeared the blood on their doors, symbolizing their courage to open the next door and follow it who merited redemption.

The Jewish slave settled into a routine during his years of servility. But now the door of opportunity is open before him. He has the chance to begin anew, make amends, and make something more of himself. His decision to ignore the opportunity is a tragic failure.

In the timeless words of Shlomo Hamelech:

“I am asleep but my heart is awake. A sound! My beloved is knocking. “Open for Me My sister, My beloved, My dove, My perfection…” I have doffed my shirt how can I don it? I have already washed my feet how can I soil them?[5]

When opportunity knocks are we willing to open the door? Or do we allow the fear of the unknown to dominate us and compel us to remain paralyzed at whatever level we are on?

“His master shall bring him to the door“

“At the entrance sin crouches”

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[1] This poem authored by Masters is entitled “George Gray”

[2] Bereishis 4:7

[3] Shabbos 22a; Rambam, Chanukah 4:7

[4] Iggeres Hashmad

[5] Shir Hashirim 5:2-3

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