SALT - Monday, 22 Shevat 5779 - January 28, 2019

  • Rav David Silverberg
            Parashat Mishpatim begins with a discussion of the eved ivri – a Jewish man working as an indentured servant to his fellow Jew.  The master is required to release the servant after six years of work, but the servant has the option to remain if he so desires.  The Torah writes that “if the servant says: I like my master…I will not go free” (21:5), then he undergoes a procedure outlined by the Torah and may then remain in his master’s service.
 
            The Mekhilta notes the seemingly repetitious phrase “amor yomar” used here by the Torah in reference to the servant’s expression of his desire to remain with his master.  This phrase, the Mekhilta comments, indicates that the servant must make this statement twice.  If he says only once that he likes his conditions of servitude and wants to remain, then he is not permitted to stay as a servant; this pronouncement must be repeated.  This point is discussed in greater detail by the Gemara in Masekhet Kiddushin (22a), which makes a different inference to establish that the servant must express his satisfaction twice.
 
            Meiri, in his commentary to the Gemara, explains that the reason for this law is to ensure that the servant makes his decision with a clear head and true resolve.  The Torah feared that the master might pressure the servant into expressing his contentment and his desire to remain, and so it stipulated that the servant must make this proclamation on two different occasions (the Gemara discusses when precisely these statements are to be made) to verify that he truly wishes to remain.  In a similar vein, Rav Moshe Najara, in his Lekach Tov commentary to the Mekhilta (cited in Torah Sheleima to this verse, note 102), writes that if the servant made this declaration just once, it might have been the result of a “ru’ach shetut” – a “spirit of foolishness” – which overcame him.  Since most people would naturally prefer a life of freedom over a life of servitude, we must view the servant’s desire to remain in servitude with a degree of suspicion until it is expressed more than once. 
 
            We sometimes convince ourselves that “ahavti et adoni” – “I like my master,” that we feel content and satisfied with an undesirable condition, when in truth we do not.  Like the servant, we might at times be overcome by a “ru’ach shetut” which tells us that our current circumstance is acceptable, due to the appeal of stability, the fear of change, the intimidating prospect of having to adapt to a new reality, or the comfort and convenience of familiarity.  The halakha requiring the servant’s repeated declaration of contentment perhaps reminds us to be skeptical of our own declarations of contentment, to carefully consider whether we are truly happy with the various states of “servitude” in which we find ourselves, or if perhaps we are better off changing our reality, as difficult and challenging as that process of change might be.