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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland

Parshas Mishpatim

"And his master shall bore through his ear with an awl." (21:6)

The Torah is critical of the eved Ivri, Jewish slave, who chooses to stay on after the usual six years of servitude. When one is granted freedom he should take advantage of the opportunity. A Jew submits to only one master - Hashem. According to the Torah, when an eved Ivri chooses to extend his period of slavery, his master bores his ear with an awl - near a doorpost. In the Talmud Kiddushin 22b, Chazal explain why a doorpost and an ear symbolize the servant's disdain for freedom. The doorway represents freedom, since it was the doorposts upon which the Jews smeared the blood of the Korban Pesach prior to their release from Egyptian slavery. The "ear" heard at Har Sinai, "Do not steal." Yet, this person stole and, since he had no money to pay back his debt, he was reduced to slavery. Now that he is rejecting the opportunity to go free, his master pierces his ear.

This idea applies specifically to a Jew who is nimkar b'gneivaso, sold to pay his debt. Another type of eved Ivri, a mocher atzmo, is one who sells himself. What did his "ear" do wrong that it must be pierced? Chazal explain that this ear should have "listened" when Hashem said,, "For to Me will Bnei Yisrael be slaves." This means that one remains subservient only to Hashem, not to a human being. We may question Chazal's need to cite two reasons for the "ear" ceremony. Is not the prohibition of taking another master in addition to Hashem sufficient to explain the ritual for both forms of eved Ivri? Why do Chazal mention another reason for the servitude of the thief?

Horav Eliyahu Meir Bloch, zl, infers a profound lesson from this Midrash. When an individual seeks to correct a moral/spiritual failing within his personality, he must go to the source of the problem. Where did it all begin? What was the initial flaw which caused his downfall? If the reason for his desire to remain a slave originates from an insecurity, if he feels a need to be dependent upon someone else, then he must address that issue. If he is overwhelmed by his inability to cope with his desire to steal, if he simply cannot control his passion to take another person's money, then he must address that problem. We cannot simply gloss over pathological deficiencies because it is more convenient to overlook them. If the source of one's sin is not acknowledged, the "teshuvah," repentance, will be ineffective.

Horav Bloch applies this idea to interpret the phrase that we say in the Viddui, confession, "But we and our fathers have sinned." Why is it necessary to cite the sins of our ancestors when we are enumerating our sins? Do we mitigate our transgressions by including those of our fathers'? The purpose, claims Horav Bloch, is to indicate the source of our sins: Where and when did it originate? By getting to the foundation, we avail ourselves of the opportunity to purge the evil we have "inherited." While it may not be complimentary to our ancestors, our teshuvah remains incomplete if the root of our error is not destroyed.

"You shall not persecute any widow or orphan. If indeed you do persecute him and if indeed he cries out to Me, I will verily hear his cry." (22:21)

The Torah presents to us a sin and its punishment. The sin is apparent: Persecuting the downtrodden, those who have no one else to care for them. The punishment, however, is a bit ambiguous. What really is the punishment for persecuting a widow, orphan or anyone who cannot take care of themselves? The underlying message of this pasuk seems to be that - regardless of the amount of time that elapses -- the individual is guaranteed punishment. Hashem clearly states that He will listen and He will repay. That warning should serve as more than a sufficient deterrent for most people. There are individuals who foolishly think that if there is no concrete punishment mentioned in the Torah, then they will attempt to get away with that which is unmentioned. To these shortsighted sinners, Hashem responds, "Do not worry. I will not ignore the cry of the oppressed. Those who persecute them will surely receive their punishment."

We go through life wondering how some people can get away with murder. We see cruelty, oppression, persecution and suffering inflicted upon people, and the perpetrators do not seem to get punished. Chazal teach us in Pirkei Avos 3:16, "The collectors make their rounds constantly every day, and collect payment from the person whether he realizes it or not." This is a reference to punishment. Hashem is the "collector" Who goes around collecting what is owed by people. At times a person is astute enough to realize that his suffering is a form of punishment. There are those, regrettably, who suffer but do not attribute their suffering to Divine retribution. A person's suffering, for the most part, is dictated by his deeds, even though he may have forgotten what he has done. While this may seem to be a generalization, the intention is only to arouse within a person the idea that everything occurs to him for a reason. Also, no one leaves this world with a "balance" of retribution. Years may go by, even generations, but the person who has hurt others will ultimately pay for his evil.

It is told that when the Chafetz Chaim was a young man, a widow in his city could not pay her rent. Her landlord attempted to evict her in the dead of winter, but to no avail. So, what did this "paragon" of human decency do? He removed the roof over her head, leaving her exposed to the harsh cold and elements. The townspeople were indignant and up in arms. Even this did not move the landlord. He remained intractable despite public censure, forcing the poor widow out into the cold. The Chafetz Chaim said nothing, but set the incident aside in his memory, waiting to see what punishment the landlord would receive. After all, the Torah says that Hashem will listen to the pleas of the widow. In no way could such an inhuman act take place without severe retribution from Hashem. It took ten years, a period of time during which most people, especially the perpetrator, forgot about the cruel incident, but Hashem did not forget. The landlord was walking outside and was bitten by a mad dog. Before long, he died after intense suffering. Interestingly, most people would never have correlated the two incidents. That is an unfortunate trait of human nature.

The Chafetz Chaim's son, Horav Leib, zl, recounts a frightening incident that occurred in Radin, where his father was Rav. It once happened that a butcher, whose son was drafted into the army, kidnapped a yeshivah student whom he placed in his son's stead. The Chafetz Chaim, was greatly disturbed by this dastardly act and remarked, "such a dreadful act cannot go unpunished by Hashem."

Thirty years later, when many people had long forgotten the butcher's cruelty, the butchers' son became ill with cholera. He suffered intensely and, before long, he died. The chevrah kaddishah refused to prepare his body for burial, due to the contagious nature of his disease. The elderly father was consequently compelled to bury his son with his own two hands.

These two incidents demonstrate the meaning of, "I will verily hear his cry." Hashem listens and He punishes. We have to open our eyes and analyze the course of events that take place, at times even years later, to see the punishment incurred by those who prey on the weak and downtrodden. We find individuals who externally display well-meaning intentions while they destroy the lives of those who interfere with their agenda. They justify their actions, sometimes even receiving legitimacy and recognition by those who seek their favor. They should be aware that they will not escape the punishment they incur for the wrong they have committed. Regardless of their unfounded support, they will ultimately pay for the hurt they have caused.

"Everything that Hashem has said, we will do and we will listen." (24:7)

Klal Yisrael responded to Hashem with a remarkable display of faith. They were prepared to "do," to act in accordance with Hashem's command, without seeking to understand the reason for the command. They trusted in the Almighty with total surrender. There is one simple question, however, that we should address. Why did they respond with the plural, "We will do, and we will listen." Should not each one of them have said, "I will do and I will listen?" Why did Klal Yisrael use the plural form?

The Chidushei Ha'Rim responds to this question with an analogy. Let us picture a large group of prisoners who are forced to sit outside on a very hot day with the sun beating down on them. To make matters worse, they are not permitted to have any water. We can imagine their parched lips and dried mouths, as they thirst for that drop of sustenance, that bit of water that will nourish and refresh them. Suddenly, a man approaches with a large container of water and asks, "My friends, do you want some water to drink?" There is no doubt that the immediate response would be, "We do, we do!" No one would answer I do, since the thirst is so obvious that everyone knows that the others are also dying of thirst. Consequently, when one responds, he has his friend in mind also.

The same idea applies to the revelation at Har Sinai. All of Klal Yisrael were literally in the same "boat." They had been imprisoned by the degenerate Egyptians for hundreds of years. They had been subjected to the most cruel, degrading slavery and torture. This was only the physical aspect of their incarceration. From the spiritual perspective, they were living in a culture that was infamous for its licentiousness. The Jews were trapped in the spiritual filth of Egypt with no hope of escape. Suddenly, Hashem liberated them. He extricated them, leading them into the desert and exposing them to kedushah, holiness, and taharah, purity. They thirsted for more. They had only been given a taste of the spiritual nourishment that would save them. Their lips were parched. Their souls cried out, "Please give us to drink. Quench our spiritual thirst!" When they came to Har Sinai, their thirst became more intense. They were closer to the Source. They felt it now more than ever. Moshe told them to surround the mountain and prepare themselves for three days. The anticipation was overpowering; their thirst for a spiritual experience, an opportunity to come closer to Hashem, was unparalleled. During those three days, they counted the hours and even the minutes, as their countdown to kabollas Ha'Torah. Their wait was over. Moshe Rabbeinu appeared, notifying them of Hashem's commandments and His demands of them. The nation listened intently with an overwhelming desire to absorb as much ruchnious, spirituality, as possible. Just like the thirsty prisoners who were availed water, the Jews all responded, "We will do and we will listen." They were all in this together; they all knew what the other wanted. Is there any question why they all responded in unison -"We will do and we will listen!"?

"And Moshe was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights." (24:18)

The Yalkut Shimoni cites a Midrash from which we can derive a valuable lesson. The story is recounted that Rabbi Chiya bar Abba was crying when he heard that Rabbi Yochanan had sold all his possessions in order to be able to study Torah. He was concerned that nothing had been put aside for Rabbi Yochanan's old age, when he would have no source of, or ability to earn, an income. Rabbi Yochanan assuaged Rabbi Chiya by saying that it was well worth it, since he had exchanged earthly possessions -- which were created in six days -- for Torah which was given in forty days. Simply put, Torah has greater value than anything material. Torah took longer to be "created" than the earth, which took only six days.

Let us analyze this Midrash. Rabbi Chiya cried when he saw the dismal state of Rabbi Yochanan's material life. His financial status and lifestyle obviously left much to be desired. Rabbi Yochanan, on the other hand, did not seem to be concerned. Why? Rabbi Chiya's concerns were realistic. He took one look as his colleague's material conditions, and he began to weep. What was the difference in perspective between these two Torah scholars that engendered two such disparate reactions?

Horav Henach Leibowitz, shlita, suggests that Rabbi Yochanan teaches us a profound lesson. Rabbi Chiya was concerned about his colleague's material condition because he viewed it in an inappropriate context. An individual must not observe the material condition exclusive of spiritual circumstances and the success he has attained. It is essential that one look at both conditions simultaneously. If he does not, the picture he will see will be ambiguous and distorted. One must see the spiritual benefits that the individual reaped as a result of his lack of material success. One who waits a long time and searches all over for a very precious jewel will not be concerned with the expense and sacrifice involved in attaining this gem. His only thought is of the treasure he has finally procured.

Rabbi Yochanan told Rabbi Chiya not to be concerned with what he had lost. Instead, when he perceives what he has gained and the loss would pale in insignificance . We should learn to accept life's challenges with joy, by viewing them in the context of the spiritual advantage that we realize.


1. From where do Chazal derive that the Sanhedrin must be situated in the m'kom Ha'Mikdash, near the Mizbayach?

2. Is the owner of an eved Ivri obligated to sustain the eved Ivri's wife and children?

3. How long does an eved nirtza remain in servitude?

4. Where did the unintentional murderer go to galus when Bnei Yisrael were still in the desert?

5. What is the difference between the payment of keifal, double payment, and daled v'hay, paying four or five times?

6. Must one give maaser from fruit that is grown during the Shmittah year?

7. Did the tzirah cross over the Jordan River?

8. A) Who was Miriam's husband? B) Who was their son?


1. From the fact that Parashas Mishpatim, which deals with laws and their adjudication, follow immediately after Parashas Yisro, which ends with the laws regarding the Mizbayach.

2. Yes.

3. Until Yovel.

4. Machane' Leviyah.

5. Keifal applies to all items that are stolen, while daled v'hey applies only to an ox or a sheep.

6. No.

7. No. Miraculously, it was able to propel its poison across the river.

8. A) Kalev ben Yefuneh. B) Chur.

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