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Mishpatim: Obedience and Responsibility

Updated: Feb 2, 2022

Parshas Mishpatim opens with the laws pertaining to Jewish slaves. The Pasuk (Shemos 21:2) writes that if one acquires an Eved Ivri (Hebrew slave), he will work for six years and then go free. If, however, the Eved Ivri says he does not want to be freed (21:5), his master must pierce his ear at the doorpost, and he will remain that master’s slave for life (21:6).

Many Rishonim are troubled by these laws and wonder why the Hebrew slave seems to be punished for wanting to opt out of freedom. And yet, there are other questions elicited by these pesukim, as well.

Firstly, why doesn’t the Eved Ivri want to be set free? An Eved Ivri is typically a Jewish man (or woman) who becomes enslaved to another Jew as a means of remuneration for stolen money or property, or due to dire poverty. We can imagine that this person lived a life of independence and autonomy prior to his enslavement; would he not want to return to that life as soon as the seventh year arrives?

Furthermore, we know that there is often much to be learned from the order of the Torah itself and the juxtaposition of ideas and stories to each other in the text. It is curious that the laws of Eved Ivri are the first major Mitzvos discussed following the Revelation at Sinai, on the heels of Yetzias Mitzrayim. Do the Jewish people really need to be given laws about slavery so soon after being freed from slavery themselves? Who among the Jews gathered in the desert can even think about becoming a slave again so soon after tasting freedom from Egyptian bondage?

On the flip side, a very different question can also be asked: How can Klal Yisrael stomach becoming Hashem’s Avadim so soon after being freed from slavery?

To best answer these questions, we must first understand the difference between obedience and subservience.

Human beings have historically bent their will to comply with the will of another person, even at great risk to their own wellbeing, even in cases where complying with another’s authority caused great harm to countless others. Troubled by the constant refrain heard throughout the Nuremberg trials of “I was just following orders,” psychologists and researchers like Stanley Milgram[1] and others found that many of us prefer to yield our freedom of choice and free will to a higher authority. And, when that choice or will is used for evil, we simply point to the authority and shrug our shoulders, absolving ourselves of both responsibility and guilt. Obedience is what allows individuals to abdicate responsibility - when we are obedient, we surrender our free will in exchange for a clear conscience.

On the contrary, subservience is the act of having a will, a desire, a freedom to choose, and shaping or molding it to dovetail with the will of another, allowing another’s will to shape our own. When we are subservient, we may end up complying with some authority despite our own initial desires, but we also maintain our free will.

Perhaps one of the most fundamental dialectics of Jewish faith is this: Judaism is a religion of subservience, rather than obedience. We do not blindly follow orders without free will or awareness, and, at the same time, we do at times follow orders without fully understanding them. This is what it means to be an Eved Hashem, a servant of God, and this is the difference between slavery and servitude.

Why would the Eved Ivri choose to continue his enslavement rather than returning to a life of freedom? It seems that he struggles with the very important characteristic of responsibility. Whether it is the child who blames his sibling or peer for a behavior that he himself committed, or the partner, friend, or employee who insists that he or she could be better or do better if only the other person would change, we human beings find it very difficult to take responsibility. Owning our choices, obligations, drives, desires, goals, dreams, and fears is daunting at best, and paralyzing at worst. Why is it so uncomfortable for us to take responsibility for our lives and actions?

One explanation for our allergy to responsibility is fear. We are so afraid of messing up, of getting life wrong, of being the reason why we suffer or struggle or need to exert more effort to succeed, or of being the reason for our failures or shortcomings altogether. The idea that we could fail, make mistakes, or come up short – and that this is not something we can blame someone else for – is downright terrifying.

Another factor at play is shame. Shame is the emotion that comes up when we think “there’s something wrong with me,” or “I am broken.” When we are struggling with something or cannot generate the effort or energy needed, we feel badly about ourselves and would much rather put that responsibility in someone else’s hands, perhaps because we don’t believe we CAN succeed, perhaps because if we fail, we won’t have to accept that the failure was ours.

The Eved Ivri has indeed lived an autonomous existence prior to his enslavement, and this life was wrought with difficult choices and decisions, dictated by the very Mitzvos the Jews are beginning to learn about after receiving the Torah. He opts to continue his enslavement because so long as he is enslaved, he does not have to exercise responsibility. He does not have to be the one to make sure his household his running smoothly and in accordance to all the dictates of halacha, he does not have to worry about tithing and Kashrus and the details of keeping a farm running. The slave works hard, but he sacrifices his autonomy in exchange for not needing to be held responsible for much of anything else.

Yet the logic of the Eved Ivri is quite flawed, and it is this mindset that Klal Yisrael might have been at risk of adopting so soon after being freed from slavery in Egypt and accepting the yoke of Torah upon themselves.

Rashi (21:6) explains according to the Mechilta on Kiddushin 22b that R’ Yochanan Ben Zakai taught as follows. The process of piercing the Eved Ivri’s ear by the doorpost is Hashem’s way of saying, ‘this man whose ear heard Me say, “Ki Li Bnei Yisrael Avadim (Vayikra 25:55),” that G-d is the One and Only Master of any Jew, acquired another master for himself. As punishment, his ear will be pierced.’ Moreover, the doorposts that passed over in Egypt witnessed G-d freeing the Jewish people from slavery, and are now therefore the witnesses to this Eved Ivri seemingly choosing another form of slavery, or obedience, for himself.

Chazal teach us (Avos 6:2), “ein licha ben chorin elah mi she’osek b’Talmud Torah” - there is no person more free than he who toils in Torah. Though seemingly paradoxical, this is only reflective of the dialectical idea we have highlighted above: living an autonomous Torah life is true freedom, for even while we are subservient to Hashem’s will, we choose that life, we choose that subservience, and we take responsibility for living by it each day. Avodas Hashem means partnering with Hashem, exercising our free will to be in a relationship. And, it is that subservience that guides us and creates a framework for the most rewarding life. HaKadosh Baruch Hu does not simply drop the Torah and its many dictates and ordinances in our laps and say, “Obey.” Rather, He says, “will you partner with Me in this life?” He does not leave us hanging; He asks us to take ownership of the bodies and souls He’s given us, and to do our best. And, ultimately, we believe that He is guiding us, and will only let befall us what benefits us most in the end.

These laws are juxtaposed with Matan Torah and follow so closely on the heels of the Exodus because Klal Yisrael were most vulnerable to this confusion between subservience and obedience at this very juncture. The origin story of the Jewish people is slavery. Coming from a life where we were not responsible for anything, one cannot blame the Jewish people for immediately seeking a new Master in Hakadosh Baruch Hu. Give us the laws, we requested, “Naaseh V’Nishma,” we’ll do first, and understand later (24:7). And yet, Hashem does not want us to simply be obedient. He asks us to be responsible, to take ownership of our choices, to subjugate our will at times to His, and to have G-dliness permeate our lives. The Eved Ivri’s mistake, and the one Klal Yisrael is warned against as they embrace their new freedom and their new servitude, is that he seeks obedience and relief from responsibility and the negative emotions that may come with it rather than choosing subservience and a life of true freedom.

This week, consider the freedoms we have as Ovdei Hashem, and the areas in which we may be in a battle of wills with our Creator. Where is there room for increased subservience in our Avodas HaKodesh? Furthermore, let us examine our willingness to embrace fear and shame as we take full responsibility for our lives. Where are we struggling to own our decisions, our tendencies, our mistakes? Where are we abdicating responsibility, displacing blame, or pointing fingers at others because we cannot admit when we are in the wrong? Perhaps through a more thorough self-assessment, we will discover what the Torah is trying to tell us: Autonomy is a gift. Responsibility is the collateral.

[1] Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(4), 371.

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