Mishpatim – Who’s Serving Whom?

ב”ה     الحمد لله

This week’s parsha is Mishpatim, which follows Yisro.  The contrast is vivid: in Yisro we received The Ten Utterances (aka Commandments) in an extraordinary encounter with G-d Almighty, and this week we’re given detailed civil laws about (seemingly) mundane matters of everyday life.

Our portion begins detailing the laws of an indentured Jewish bondsman (or servant).  Here’s  a quick translation of the first few verses (Exodus 2:6):

(2) If/When you acquire a Hebrew servant, six years he will work and in the seventh he will go forth to freedom with no charge.  (3) If he comes alone (b’gapo) he will go forth alone (b’gapo); if he has a wife (ba’al isha), his wife will go forth with him.  (4) If his master gives him a wife, and she bears him sons or daughter, the woman and her children will be(long) to her master, and he will go forth alone (b’gapo).  (5) If the servant says (repeatedly/intensely), “I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go forth (to) freedom.”  (6) His master will bring him to [the judges] (elokim), and (he) will bring him to the door or the doorpost (mezuzah), and his master will bore his ear with an awl, and (he) will serve him forever (l’olam).

The Problems

There are a few things that stand out in the above verses:
(A)  Our modern sensibilities may have a hard time with the idea that if his master gives the servant a wife, she and her children stay with the master should the servant exercise his option to go free after six years of service,
(B)  Why would the servant say “I love my master, my wife and my children”?  Surely he would say, “I love my wife and my children” and perhaps include his master at the end of the list.
(C)  Why is the word for judges (verse 6) elokim, which is also a name for G-d?
(D)  Why does the text say “the door” and why also include “the doorpost”?
(E)  Why whould the servant have to serve forever?  Wouldn’t it be more fair for him to retain the option to leave in the future?

(F) The thing that stood out the most for me is this: in verse two, the Torah is speaking in the second person, “If/When you acquire a Hebrew servant…” but in verse four the phrasing is “If his master gives him a wife…”  Shouldn’t verse four read “If you give him a wife…”?!

Another Reading

The classic Hassidic view is that we are embued with two kinds of souls, the animal soul and the G-dly soul.  Both are necessary and vital, but our job in this life is to harness the energies of the animal soul to serve the purposes of the G-dly soul.  There are three levels that the Alter Rebbe enumerates in his classic work (The Tanya): the tzaddik, who has vanquished the animal soul, the benoni, who still struggles with his animal soul, but is alway virtuous in his actions, and the rasha (most of us), who sometimes wins and sometimes loses the battle with his animal nature.

Let’s re-read the above verses with this in mind.

The verb in verse two which I translate above as “acquire” is from the root koneh.   I associate koneh with G-d’s ownership of all things in the world, because we in our daily prayers we refer to G-d as “koneh ha-kol”, the Owner of everything.  So let’s interpret verse two as the situation where the G-dly soul acquires (becomes master over) the animal soul (“the Hebrew servant”).  This is the level of the tzaddik, who has total mastery over his animal soul.
The six years of work and going free in the seventh is symbolic of the weekly rhythm, where we work for six days and rest on the seventh, and the seventh day is holy and is known as a taste of the World to Come.  Thus we can read:
(2) If/When you acquire a Hebrew servant, six years he will work and in the seventh he will go forth to freedom with no charge   to mean
(2) If/When your G-dly souls masters your animal soul, you will work the six days of the week and go freely into holiness, into the Sabbath on the seventh day and taste the World to Come.  

In verse three, the Hebrew word b’gapo means “alone”, but it can literally be translated “in his body”.  This we can understand as the tzaddik’s bringing his holy level into his body, which then “goes forth” with him into the Sabbath as well.  Since the phrase ba’al isha (husband) can be translated “master of woman”, we can understand the second half of the verse to be saying that if the tzaddik brings G-dliness into the arena of his relationship with his wife, she will also enter into the Sabbath and taste the World to Come.  Thus we understand
(3) If he comes alone (b’gapo) he will go forth alone (b’gapo); if he has a wife (ba’al isha), his wife will go forth with him  to mean
(3) If he masters his body (b’gapo) he will bring forth his body (b’gapo) [into holiness]; if he masters the arena of marital relations (ba’al isha), his wife will go forth with him [into holiness].
I think it’s also possible to interpret the ba’al isha as referring to the feminine aspect of G-d (the Shechinah) and the tzaddik helps effect a reunification between G-d and the Shechinah, but that level of mysticism is beyond my level of understanding.

In verse four, we now have a basis for understanding the grammatical shift of “If his master gives him…” (instead of the expected “If you give him…”).  We are switching from considering the tzaddik (who mastered his animal soul) to the benoni (who struggles with the animal soul).  In regard to the holy tzaddik, the text referred to the G-dly soul as “you” and used the verb koneh.   The benoni, however, struggles with his inclinations; his animal soul is often his master, and “his master” may bring him a wife.  Thus his worldly inclinations may bring him a wife and children (or you could say he “marries the worldy life and the repercussions thereof”), but unlike for the tzaddik, these worldy-oriented relationships remain tied to the animal soul and the benoni does not bring them into the world of holiness.
The last part of the verse shows us that benoni can still go forth (into holiness), however, through his body (b’gapo).  By fulfilling the commandments (mitzvos) in the world of action, the benoni can attain a holy level, despite the fact that he still struggles with his inner nature on the spiritual level.
So we can read
(4) If his master gives him a wife, and he bears him sons or daughter, the woman and her children will be(long) to her master, and he will go forth alone (b’gapo)    as
(4) If his animal soul-energy brings him a wife, and she bears him sons or daughter, the woman and her children will be(long) to the animal soul-energy, but the benoni will go forth (into holiness) through his (holy) bodily actions (b’gapo).

In verse five, we shift our attention to the rasha, the one whose animal soul often has the upper hand.  Here is a man who embraces the world life.  We hear this man declare that he refuses to go forth (into holiness), and he loves “my master, my wife and my children.”  Now the order makes sense; his first love is his “master” or his animal soul.
So we interpret
(5) If the servant says (repeatedly/intensely), “I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go forth (to) freedom.”  to mean
(5) If the rasha says (repeatedly/intensely), “I love my animal soul/worldly life, and all the things that follow from being married to it; I will not go forth (to) holiness (if I have to give up these worldly attachments).”

In the final verse, we have an amazing declaration.  Scripture tells us that the rasha’s master, this worldy life, will bring him to G-d!  The phrase that follows has an implied pronoun, so it is usually translated that the (human) master will bring the servant to the door or the doorpost, but it could also be referring back to the previous word, elokim, or G-d.  So we can read it as G-d will bring the servant to the door or the doorpost.  A door is an opening between the place that you are and the place that you might go.  The doorpost (mezuzah) can be seen as a reference to the lintel (mezuzah) on which Israelites put the blood of the lamb sacrifice to proclaim their desire to be redeemed from Egypt.  So the rasha is brought to the place where he can see an opening to a new place, and is reminded of his ability to be brought forth from his slavery (to his animal soul).
And what happens there at the door/doorpost?  His master (the worldly life) will bore through his ear with an awl.  This will surely leave some blood on the doorpost!  Our rasha’s worldly life will deliver a blow that will cause at least a drop or two of blood to symbolically proclaim his desire for redemption.
And finally, the servant will “serve him l’olam” which can be read “serve G-d in this world“.
So we can read
(6) His master will bring him to [the judges] (elokim), and (he) will bring him to the door or the doorpost (mezuzah), and his master will bore his ear with an awl, and (he) will serve him forever (l’olam)   as meaning
(6) His worldly life will bring him to G-d, and G-d will bring him to the door (to a new life) or the doorpost (mezuzah – the possibility of redemption), and his worldly life will deliver a powerful (blood-spilling) blow, and he will serve G-d in this world.

So there we have it; a different way of reading these five verses which can fit some of the “anomalies” that are listed above.

My takeaway is that while we all may strive to completely subdue our animal inclinations (as a tzaddik has), few of us are at that level.  Nor are we at the level of the benoni, who struggles with his animal soul, but attains holiness by fulfilling the mitzvos in all his actions.  Most of us are at the level of the rasha, and while we may become strongly attached to the worldly life, The Master of the Universe tells us that even if we cling tightly worldly life, that earthly master will bring us to G-d, and we will be given an opportunity return to Him.  And even if we spurn that opportunity as it arises (G-d forbid!), we will still end up serving G-d in this world.

The easy way, or the hard way.  But we all ultimately serve G-d’s purposes in this world.

May we find the strength to increase our connection to G-d and serve Him joyfully and completely as much of the time as is possible for us.  And may G-d bless us with the courage and perserverance to be successful more and more, each arising day.

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