"Rabbi, do Jewish people believe everything in the Torah is actually true?"
I'm not sure what it is about these early months of the secular year, but I've been addressing a lot of interfaith groups lately. Each time, after the polite attention and the intent nods, someone will ask a question like the one above, "Do Jewish people believe that everything in the Torah is true?"
And each time, I pause and smile and respond, "Yes, but accepting that the Torah is true is just the beginning of the way we understand it. The fascinating and completely compelling process that has kept us learning for centuries is the challenge to comprehend how the words of the Torah are true, even when they defy our first rational reading."
This week's Torah portion, Mishpatim, is a seemingly disparate litany of laws, rules and commandments, and it challenges us to find truth in divine dictates that may, on first blush, appear to be arbitrary.
Among the most puzzling statutes are the directives detailing what to do when an indentured servant elects to remain in servitude even after his or her mandatory emancipation after seven years of service to the same employer.
The Torah reads: "If the servant declares, 'I love my master, and my wife and my children: I do not wish to go free,' his master shall take him before God. He shall be brought to the door or doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall then remain his servant for life."
How can this be true? More to the point, what truth can this strange procedure help us to discover? The first uncomfortable incongruity is the servant who does not agree to be set free. Why would a slave not embrace freedom when it is offered? And yet, isn't that the story of the Exodus; isn't that the story of our entire lives?
A Transition Period
Much to the consternation of Moses and perhaps even to the frustration of God, the Torah recounts numerous occasions upon which the Israelites angrily confront Moses, asking, "Why did you free us from Egypt? Slavery in Egypt was better than the fear and uncertainty of freedom in the wilderness!"
In our own lives, how many of us cling to a sort of servitude rather than the uncertainty that we would encounter if we asserted our unfettered freedom?
A Sacred Relationship
Which leads us to the foundational truth of this confusing legality: Our freedom to truly and deeply bind ourselves to the sacred relationships in our lives is precious. The servant in our Torah portion expresses a love for his or her master as the motivation for rejecting emancipation. Elsewhere in the Torah, God responds to the Israelites' need for the security of relationship by characterizing the Exodus from Egypt as a transition from servitude to the Egyptians to service to God.
How many ways do we limit our freedom in order to honor and care for those whom we love? We report to work each day in order to support our families. We reserve time that might otherwise be spent pursuing our own individual interests or pleasures in order to dedicate it to deepening relationships with our spouses, our children or our close friends.
And as Jews, we often forego many of our freedoms in order to bring our lives into conformity with the Jewish calendar, and participation in the Jewish community, holidays and events.
That still leaves the astounding ritual with the awl and the ear and the doorpost. What truth can that possibly illuminate?
The Tzfat Emet — Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger — teaches us that piercing the servant's ear is a physical representation of the realization that freedom is also the ability to hear others and to act accordingly. God mandates emancipation after seven years of servitude because, ultimately, the measure of any relationship is how we choose to act after hearing the word of God, the needs of our loved ones or the realities of how to repair this world.
For me, the truth of this week's portion has little to do with slaves and doorposts, and everything to do with the realization that the most profound relationships in our lives — whether they are with other people or with God — are those born of our ability to listen and hear the voice of another.
Rabbi Eric Rosin is the religious leader of Kesher Israel Congregation in West Chester.