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Friday, January 28, 2011

Parshat Mishpatim: Enslavement to the Ego

This week's parashah/portion is Mishpatim (Shemot/Exodus 21:1 – 24:18). The parashah is the beginning of what is referred to as the "Book of the Covenant."  The contents of the parashah are instructions given to Moses by God while still on Mount Sinai; it is the first series of detailed laws to be given following the speaking of the Ten Commandments.  It includes laws on how to treat slaves and lists the penalties for various crimes. All of these laws are meant to provide a structure for the Israelite people. For this is a people that had only known slavery and now they must be taught the rules and regulations of a free society. Without these, they might assume that freedom was equivalent to anarchy and havoc would ensue (just think of the Golden Calf incident which takes place while Moses is still on Sinai receiving all of these laws).

In reading these laws it has always fascinated me that the first law given is concerning how to treat a Hebrew slave. How strange that the first regulation for a newly freed people would be how to treat their own slaves! One would think the text would state unequivocally that slavery was not to be permitted or that this would be the last thing on the people's minds.


The laws concerning slaves are complex. They are found in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, yet they differ greatly each time. However, focusing on the version in this
parashah, they include the fact that slaves are to be freed every seventh (sabbatical) year -- unless that slave decides that he does not desire freedom (this section does not actually discus female slaves). In that case, the slave is to be brought "...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."

I believe that these texts about slavery, which is actually more of an indentured servitude, remind the reader of the importance of freedom. Freedom is a precious gift. If we are forced to give up that freedom due to financial hardship, then this status should only be temporary and the slaves must be treated with dignity.
  However, if for some reason that slave becomes accustomed to his slave status, he must be permanently marked.   This must be done "before God."

God tells Moses on Sinai that we are to be servants of the Divine and serve no human master. If we choose to abdicate this responsibility and instead serve another person, then we must let God and the
  community know of our choice. Just as Cain was forced to wander the world with the mark on his forehead to remind the world of his sin (murdering his brother), so the slave that chooses to remain enslaved is forced to wear a permanent reminder that he has chosen to reject God's gift of freedom.

It would be easy to use this text, as many have, as a metaphor for how human beings can become enslaved not only to other people, but to work, greed, luxurious living, or substances such as drugs and alcohol. The list is endless. Though these various passions and addictions can enslave us, they are only symbols of a deeper kind of enslavement. For ultimately they represent enslavement to our desires, for the things that we think we need in order to feel like we are fulfilled. We all have passions and desires.
  In Judaism, they are not to be treated as inherently bad. For even our yetzer ha'ra – our inclination to do evil – was seen by the rabbis as a catalyst for us to be productive. Yet, when our passions and desires begin to control our lives, then we risk becoming enslaved to them.

This enslavement to our passions and desires masks what is actually our enslavement to the ego. We want to possess, to have, to keep, so that we can feel good, so we can show off, so we can brag, or simply so we can feel secure. This is what the ego wants. This is how the ego keeps us focused on our own needs and ourselves and directs us away from compassionate action meant to serve others, our world, and God. When we allow ourselves to become so ensnared in our desires and passions, then we no longer wish for anything but to increase our possessions, our wealth, and our status. We no longer care about others or our world. We become attached to all that we supposedly own or that we think fulfills us.
  It is almost as if we have been nailed to the doorposts of our house, as is the slave wishing to forgo freedom.

However, if we stop for a moment and realize that we have become slaves to our passions, then we can change. When we acknowledge that all that we think we possess is ultimately meaningless if we are not connected to the world, to others and to the Divine, then we are able to detach ourselves from being nailed down and stuck. For they can be gone tomorrow just as easily as they are here today. This is true of everything we have and everything we think we are.
  For the only


Yet, even after beginning a new journey, we carry with us a reminder of
  our enslavement, like the scar on the ear of a slave who had chosen to have his ear pierced to the doorpost. That internal scar, that spiritual wound, is meant to remind us that it is always possible to become enslaved yet again. For it is too easy to allow the ego to trick us into believing our old ways yet again.

In those moments when we feel the pull to follow our ego and our
  passions, we can look to the mezuzah – what is really meant to be nailed to the doorpost - as a reminder of what it means to live life as a human being created in God's image and recognizing God's presence in every moment, at every step. We can remember in that moment that we are not the sum of our passions and that our passions are not what should guide us. 

What must guide us is the awareness of our inherent godliness in each moment, the compassion that we possess for every human being – including ourselves – and the desire to bring holiness into our fractured universe. If we remember that, the moment when we hear the voice of ego and passion within, then we will take the right step and remain free human beings. It is not an easy task to remember this in each moment, but it is what we must do if we are to be truly free.

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