Servant of Master?
These are the judgments which you will place before them. If you
a Hebrew servant, he will work six years, and in the seventh he will go
out for free. (Shemos 21:1-2)
There are several explanations as to why the not-so-dramatic laws of
servants follow on the heels of last week's drama about the giving of the
Torah at Mt. Sinai. Some of the explanations are basic, some are
On a simple level, the Torah is reminding us while the memory is still
fresh what it was like to be slaves to others, so that we should never do
the same to others. Even if we acquire slaves, for one reason or another,
we must act as responsible owners, never abusing those who work for us.
This can apply even today in the business world when employers feel a
right to make unnecessary demands from those who work for them.
On a more Kabbalistic level, says the Zohar, the whole story about the
slave and his wife is really talking about gilgulim (reincarnation) as the
. . . There are other reasons as well, such as in order to marry his soul-
mate, having not merited to do so the first time. Sometimes he may have
already married his soul-mate, but he sinned and must return to rectify
it; he will come back alone, as Sabba of Mishpatim has written (Zohar
105b) on the posuk, "If he came by himself . . ." (Shemos 21:3). Sometimes
he has merits, and even though she does not need to reincarnate she
reincarnates with him b'sod, "and his wife will go out with him" (ibid.).
(Sha'ar HaGilgulim, Ch. 8)
However, another aspect of the answer may lie in a different parshah, and
what the Talmud has to say about acquiring a Jewish slave. To begin with,
the Talmud is talking about an "Eved Nirtza," a Jewish slave who was
acquired originally for only six years, but who subsequently chose to stay
on with his master until the Yovel year.
According to the law, if this is the case, his master takes the Jewish
slave to the door post of the house, where he bores an awl through his
ear, as a sign of his extended servitude. So, the Talmud wants to know:
What is different about the ear from the rest of the limbs of the body?
The Holy One, Blessed is He, said, "It was the ear that heard My voice at
Mt. Sinai, when I said, 'To Me, the Children of Israel are servants; they
are My servants, whom I brought out of Egypt. I am G-d, your G-d' (Vayikra
25:55). [This means that they should be servants to Me, their G-d,] and
not servants to servants (i.e., their fellow Jew), and yet this one goes
and acquires a master for himself! Let [that ear] be pierced!" (Kiddushin
Thus, it is true, as G-d pronounced in last week's parshah: G-d did,
indeed, take us out of the house of bondage. But, as the Torah later
reminds us, it was to bring us into the service of G-d Himself. Yes, we
were freed from being servants to the Egyptians, only to become servants
of the Master of the Universe. Thus, as many have asked, "What did we gain
by leaving Egypt? What good is being redeemed from bondage if only to
enter in another servitude?
The answer has to do with what it means to be a Jewish servant.
If he says that he does not want to leave you because he loves you and
your house, and has prospered with you . . . (Devarim 15:16)
Says the Talmud:
Prospered with you: with you in food, with you in drink, and therefore it
should not be that you eat refined bread, and he eats coarse bread, that
you drink old wine and he drinks new wine, that you sleep on cloth and he
sleeps on straw. Based upon this, they say: All who acquire a Jewish slave
is like one who has acquired a master! (Kiddushin 20a)
Leave it to the Torah to invent such a twist of fate. Normally, the world
over, when a person acquired a slave that is exactly what he got: a slave.
And, though it is true that a Jewish slave acquired by a Jewish master,
nevertheless, is a slave that comes with conditions of servitude that, for
all intents and purposes, makes the slave look more like a master than the
servant he was hired to be.
Hmm. Would that not mean, that if G-d acquired us as servants as the Torah
said, that we would be, and this is VERY awkward to say, a master of His,
in some way? I mean, we would still always be every bit His servants, and
He would be our only true Master. But shouldn't there be some aspect to
the relationship that leaves us looking a little like masters ourselves?
The answer is YES. Is this not what the Talmud has already said elsewhere,
when it teaches that a righteous person decrees below, and G-d fulfills
above (Ta'anis 23a)? The righteous Jew is just as much the servant of G-d,
if not more so, than the unrighteous Jew, and yet it is his will that G-d
carries out, as if He, the Master of the Universe, takes instructions from
His own creations!
Wait, it gets even better, as the following account proves. It is from a
discussion amongst the rabbis regarding a specific law of spiritual
On that day Rebi Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but
they did not accept them. He told them, "If the halachah agrees with me,
let this carob tree prove it!"
The carob tree was torn a hundred amos out of its place, and some say,
four hundred amos.
"No proof can be brought from a carob tree," they responded.
So, he said to them, "If the halachah agrees with me, let the stream of
water prove it!" after which the stream of water flowed backwards.
"No proof can be brought from a stream of water," they told him.
But, he insisted, "If the halachah agrees with me, let the walls of the
Bais Medrash prove it!" and, the walls began to fall inward.
However, Rebi Yehioshua rebuked them (the walls), saying, "When chachamim
are engaged in a halachic dispute, what right do you have to interfere?"
Thus, they did not fall in, in honor of Rebi Yehioshua, nor did they
return upright, in honor of Rebi Eliezer; they still stand inclined.
Again, he said to them, "If the halachah agrees with me, let it be proved
from Heaven!" whereupon a Heavenly Voice called out, "Why do you argue
with Rebi Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halachah agrees with
However, Rebi Joshua arose and exclaimed, "It is not in heaven!" (Devarim
What did he mean by this? Rebi Yirmiyah said, "That the Torah had already
been given at Mt. Sinai, and therefore we pay no attention to a Heavenly
Voice. You (G-d) have long since written in the Torah at Mt. Sinai, 'After
the majority one must decide' (Shemos 23:2)."
Rebi Nasan [later] met Eliyahu and asked him, "What did The Holy One,
Blessed is He, do at that time?"
"He laughed [with joy]," he answered him, "saying, 'My sons have defeated
Me! My sons have defeated Me!'." (Bava Metzia 59b)
Again, leave it to the Talmud to portray such an unlikely scene, and
reveal the level of sophistication of the relationship between G-d and His
people. And, this is what the Torah is telling us: Yes, you are to be My
servants. But here's the twist: "If you truly become My servants," says G-
d, "I will treat you like masters! You will serve Me, but it will be like
And thus, we have an alternative explanation for why this week's parshah
is about Jewish servants that follows last week's parshah of giving the
"I will send hornets ahead of you, which will drive out the Chivites,
Canaanites, and the Hitites, from before you. I will not drive them out
before you in one year, which would make the land desolate, and cause the
animals of the field to multiply against you." (Shemos 23:28-29)
Imagine being taken out to dinner to an expensive restaurant and after a
great meal, not having to pay for anything. Imagine going to a book store
next, and the same friend buying you an expensive set of books, at no cost
to you. Next, imagine that your friend has taken you to an expensive
clothing store in order to buy you a new suit, as a gift. Now, imagine,
after being overwhelmed by all the unexpected generosity, being asked by
the same friend if you wouldn't mind sharing the cost of the gas!
It would probably throw you for a loop, wouldn't it? I mean, after
spending hundreds of dollars on you, you probably wouldn't mind chipping
in your share of the transportation costs. But, why? It can't be because
your friend can't afford to shoulder the burden of the traveling expenses,
because he just spent hundreds of dollars on you without batting an eye.
Obviously $15.00 for gas is no sweat off his nose.
"Ah . . . sure . . ." you say, confused, and not wanting to sound
Well, that was kind of what it was like for the Jewish people in this
week's parshah. Egypt had been destroyed by ten plagues that did not
physically involve a single Jew to make them happen. The sea was split for
them, clearing a path to freedom where, under normal circumstances, they
should have drowned. Hunger was solved with bread from Heaven, and
clothing did not wear away.
Now, close to the border of Eretz Canaan, G-d has informed the newly freed
Jewish nation of the upcoming miracle and military victory against nations
far more powerful than they were. G-d Himself will wage the war, and drive
out the corrupt Canaanite nations in a completely miraculous fashion.
"However," G-d says, "we're not going to do this too fast. You see," He
continues, "if we do this too fast, then we'll have a technical problem.
With all the people gone, wild animals will move into the cities, and
you'll have to deal with them."
"Ah, right," we wonder to ourselves. "Ah, G-d, why don't you just tell the
animals not to come? Or, just make them go away, You know, poof! . . .
Kind of like the way you made the Egyptians go away . . . You're G-d!
Can't You make the world do whatever you want it to?"
Of course He can. That's never the issue. The issue is, do we deserve such
perfect miracles? Leave Egypt? We had to; G-d had promised Avraham,
Yitzchak, and Ya'akov that we would. Get to Canaan? That too was part of
the deal made with our Forefathers. However, how we got there and what we
would have to contribute to take the land depended upon the people at the
time. "I don't care how you get my son back here," the father tells his
son's redeemer, "just as long as you get him back here in one piece, and
Likewise, get to the Final Redemption? We must. But just how many
technical details we will have to overcome along the way will depend upon
the merit of the Jewish people at the moment of truth. Thus, even though
THE moment of truth may not be far away, and great miracles may be
occurring for us, still, we may have to deal with some "wild elements"
along the way while taking the land, once and for all.
Everyone counted must give a half-shekel, according to the standard of
sanctuary, where a shekel equals twenty gerahs. Such a half-shekel is to
be given as an offering to G-d. (Shemos 30:13)
This Shabbos begins the first of the four parshios before and after Purim.
The first is Parashas Shekalim, in honor of the half-shekel piece that
Jews contributed at this time of year. The money was collected and
deposited into a chest in the Temple, and was used to pay for the public
sacrifices throughout the upcoming year.
Why a chetzi-shekel and not a full one, regardless of one's financial
position? Because, we are being taught how to look at ourselves as pieces
of the national puzzle, and not puzzles unto ourselves. We are only "half"
of the story, and our fellow Jews are the other "half."
Kabbalistically, shekel implies something more than money. The
word "mishkal" means scale, and represents the idea of balance. More
specifically, it represents the idea of the "Middle Line," the balance
between the Right Side of Chesed, and the Left Side of Din (Judgment).
Traditionally, it represents the idea of Rachamim (Mercy).
According to the Vilna Gaon, this idea has added significance in advance
of Moshiach. According to the talmidei HaGR"A, one of the seven traits of
the period just in advance of Moshiach, which helps create the proper
spiritual atmosphere for Moshiach's rule:
Each person must equate himself to the other in his community. He must not
regard himself as superior or greater than others, neither materially nor
spiritually. This is the intention of the Talmud when it says, "Moshiach
ben David will not come until all measurements are equal" (Sanhedrin
98a), "until all the prices are equal." (Kol HaTor, Ch. 7)
It is talking about the physical market place, but it refers also to the
spiritual market place. This is definitely much easier said than done,
this idea of treating all Jews equal. There will always be differences on
levels of souls, because that is how Creation has been wired. But, how one
views oneself because of His Divine gifts is the avodah of the individual.
One of the most powerful aspects of the Final Redemption will be its
ability to unify the nation. Elsewhere the GR"A states that one of the
most important aspects of Kibbutz Golios, of ingathering the exiles is the
Kiddush Hashem that Jewish unity creates in the eyes of the nations of the
The Gulf War ended on Purim of 1991 because of the achdus of Klal Yisroel
that was achieved because of the crisis. Perhaps had we continued that
achdus after the war, rather than simply celebrate the salvation and go
back to our respective and individualist ways of life, Moshiach may have
come at that time. Instead, there is talk of Jewish civil war for the
first time in over a millennium.
Parashas Shekalim is to help us get back on track, at least to remind us
how important unity of the Jewish people is to G-d. And, if we work on it
on our own, then perhaps we won't require the Erev Rav to drag it out of
Have a great Shabbos,
Text Copyright © 2006 by Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Torah.org.