Shira Reifman, an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program, is the Director of Operations for Lamdeni Educational Services, an organization dedicated to helping North American olim integrate into the Israeli educational system, and a fund raising consultant to several non-profit organizations. She lives in Yad Binyamin with her husband and four daughters. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Parashat Mishpatim opens with the laws of the Eved Ivri, a Jewish man who is sold into slavery as a punishment or to repay a debt. The Torah teaches that such a slave must work for 6 years, but is entitled to his freedom in the 7th year. If, however, in the 7th year of servitude the slave chooses to remain with his master permanently, the master must pierce the slave’s ear against the door post and is then permitted to keep him forever. In general, Rabbinic tradition looks negatively upon a person who chooses to be enslaved to another human being, understanding that in some way being enslaved to another mortal reduces one’s level of free will and ability to be a true servant of the ultimate Master.
What has always puzzled me about the eved ivri laws is the extreme detail with which the piercing ritual is described, specifically: why can’t a master pierce his slave’s ear wherever he chooses? What is significant about piercing the slave’s ear against a door post? To answer this question, my husband, Rabbi Daniel Reifman, directed me to several other places in the Torah where doorways feature prominently. Genesis (Ch. 18, v.10) describes Sarah as moving from within the tent “to the doorway of the tent” when she is told that she will give birth to Isaac. Soon after, the messengers who told Sarah of her impending pregnancy, go to S’dom to save Lot from the looming destruction. In S’dom (Genesis 19:10), the messengers are inside Lot’s house and an angry mob forms outside of the house. Only the door stands between Lot’s guests inside and death at the hands of the mob outside. Lot moves back and forth, going out to the mob in verse 6 and closing the door behind him, and then being pulled back into the house and having the door shut before him. And, most obviously, in Exodus chapter 12, the Jews are commanded to paint blood on their door posts and remain inside the doors of their homes during makat bechorot (the slaying of the first born.)
In all of these instances, the doorway acts as a threshold between life and death. Inside her tent, Sarah will die without heirs, without anyone to carry on her memory and ideals. In the doorway, she is transformed into a woman with a future full of life and possibilities. In S’dom , all who are on one side of Lot’s doorway will live. So too, in Egypt, the Jews behind closed doors will live, while all those on the other side of these thresholds will perish. Similarly, in the story of the eved ivri, the doorway is a threshold, both literal and figurative, over which the slave is about to cross. However, unlike Sarah who expanded her possibilities, and the messengers and Jews who preserved their lives, the slave is narrowing his personal possibilities for the future and is losing much of his free choice – the defining characteristic of humanity, in general, and a Jewish lifestyle, in particular. Now we understand why the master must pierce the slave’s ear against the door post. Figuratively speaking, carrying out the ritual in the doorway reminds the slave that he stands on the threshold between a full life of freedom and expansive opportunities on the one hand, and servitude without a personal future on the other.
Throughout life, as we each stand on our personal thresholds, let us always choose life, cherish our freedom and delight in the multitude of possibilities that it affords us.