Monday, January 24, 2011

The Door (portion Mishpatim)

The opening section of our Torah portion, Mishpatim, raises some serious challenges for contemporary readers. Last week, we marked the pivotal moment in our people’s history, as we received the Torah at Mount Sinai. What a let down, then—at least at first glance—to pick up just a few lines later with legislation dealing with the treatment of slaves. True, the bondage described here is not the same as that which we endured in Egypt (or that African-Americans suffered in this country), as much as a kind of indentured servitude in which people find themselves obliged to sell their labor for a fixed time to repay their debts. Even so, the opening of the parashah is not what we expect from Torah, and it can be jarring to modern sensibilities.

What, then, do we make of this section? My own inclination is to recognize and celebrate the fact that, on a literal level, these verses point to a notable case of genuine moral progress—and then to re-read the passage metaphorically in search of meaning for today.

Our section starts with Exodus 21:15, which deals with the end of the slave’s prescribed period of servitude: If the slave declares, “I love my master, and my wife and children: I do not wish to go free,” his master shall take him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall then remain his slave for life.

This raises an obvious question: why would someone voluntarily choose to remain a slave? Perhaps the prospect of freedom is just too frightening. As miserable as bondage may be, some may choose it over the heavy burden of autonomy, which entails accepting responsibility for one’s own choices. The Israelites of the wilderness generation fall victim to exactly this fear: terrified by their hard-won liberty, they spend forty years whining to Moses about their desire to return to Egypt.

In light of this, Rashi’s commentary on the beginning of our parashah is fascinating:
Why are those who decide to stay branded in the ear? Because it was the ear that heard God declare at Sinai, “I have brought you out of the house of bondage.”
To which a later commentator, K’li Yakar, adds: And why a doorpost? Because a door was opened for him to go free and he refused to go.”

Who among us has never succumbed to such fear, and thus turned away from a door into great possibilities? All too often, we choose the cage that we know, the prison that has become comfortably familiar, over passing through the portal to unmapped promised lands. Our challenge is to muster the courage to move forward into the unknown. This is terribly difficult, but if we learn from our past and listen, with our ears, for the encouragement of the Holy One, we can enjoy freedom’s fruits.

Let me conclude with a poem by Adrienne Rich, which can also be found in our siddur, Mishkan Tefilah:

Either you will
go through this door
or you will not go through.
If you go through
there is always the risk
of remembering your name.
Things look at you doubly
and you must look back
and let them happen.
If you do not go through
it is possible
to live worthily
to maintain your attitudes
to hold your position
to die bravely
but much will blind you,
much will evade you,
at what cost who knows?
The door itself
makes no promises.
It is only a door.

No comments: