Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
To what are we enslaved? How does our slavery hold us back, nailed to the doorpost? And what would we hear if we freed ourselves from the comforts that swaddle us, muffling the still small voice of or souls, of our dreams beckoning us, of God calling from the Mystery?
This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (Judgments), tells of the slave who does not want to go free saying, “I love my master.” We read of the judgment against him – that his ear be set against the doorpost and mutilated by piercing with an awl. The Hasidic master Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger (1847-1905) asks, “Why the ear?” And he answers: It was not for the slavish, robotic performance of prescribed acts that we were created, rather, for a continuous, passionate “listening” to the great Voice beyond human masters, and beyond ourselves.
The slave who chooses slavery is judged for deafening himself to the call to freedom, aspiration, and forward movement out of the narrow places. He is judged for not hearing the call of allegiance to a higher or deeper Master. He’s judged for being stuck, as any of us can be when we fall in love with one sort of thralldom or another. We, too, choose slavery when we become too attached to what we know and what has become habitual. We deafen ourselves when we choose complacency rather than engagement, when we filter the voices that inspire our continual unfolding.
Further on, Mishpatim tells of the People’s response to hearing Torah as revealed at Sinai. They declare, “We shall do, and we shall hear!” – affirming their vitality and their openness to the future. The chassidic master Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav teaches, “We shall do” refers to our fulfillment of commandments, doing what is right and what is expected of us. “We shall hear” refers to our attention to what is enigmatic and mysterious, what we don’t yet understand, and what we will never fully understand.
Whereas the slave in love with slavery has deafened himself to the “call”, the emancipated nation at the foot of Sinai responds in heightened awareness of a spiritual voice that is always whispering, and they pledge allegiance to be attentive – not just to required acts, but to the sounds of the universe. They promise to continue to listen, to learn, to grow, and to balance action with hearing – hearing the Torah that was given at Sinai and listening for the eternal evolution of revelation in every plane.
Are our ears nailed to a doorpost, or are we free to hear with our hearts?
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.
Pronounced: yuh-HOO-dah or yuh-hoo-DAH (oo as in boot), Origin: Hebrew, Judah, one of Joseph’s brothers in the Torah.