Parshat Mishpatim begins by discussing the laws of a Hebrew slave. At the end of six years he has the opportunity to go free. However, if he declines his freedom and chooses to remain with his master he has his ear pierced and stays with his master, his wife and children until the Jubilee year. The Gemara (Kiddushin 22b) explains that the ear that heard freedom proclaimed at Mount Sinai and yet chose to remain enslaved was to be pierced. This was done to drive home the lesson that we are only servants to Hashem, not to any man.
Not only are we not to be servants to any man, we also have to be careful not to feel exceedingly indebted to any man as well. Instead, we need to attribute our fate and success to God directly. At the Pesach seder we say, “If the Holy One, Blessed be He, would not have taken us out of Egypt, we and our children and our children’s children would be enslaved (me’shubadim) to Pharaoh in Egypt.” R’ Nesanel Quinn, the menahel at Torah Vodaas, once explained this to me in a unique manner. Of course, today, thousands of years later, there are no more pharaohs and the Egyptian empire no longer exists. We would not be enslaved in America to him at the present time. However, the word “me’shubadim” can also be translated as “indebted.” The verse might actually mean that were it not for the spectacular miracles that accompanied the liberation of the Jewish nation, we would still feel indebted to Pharaoh for letting us out of Egypt. We would think that just as Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves with his Emancipation Proclamation, so too Pharaoh did us a great favor in granting us our liberty.
Instead, we know the truth, that it was God, Himself, who enabled our freedom as a nation. The verse reads (Shemot 7:7), “You shall know that I am Hashem your God, Who took you out from under the burdens of Egypt.” You are me’shubad (indebted) to me and to no one else.
Today, we may well enjoy our physical liberty but may fall prey to other forms of emotional enslavement. Unfortunately, all too often many of us become enslaved to depression, anxiety, the indulgence of harmful habits or the pursuit of money to the exclusion of all other values. Alcohol and illicit substance abuse are at an all-time high, for example. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, every day, more than 115 Americans die after overdosing on opioids. These folks are not free.
Psalm 115 laments that, for some, gold and silver have become the idols they worship. Those of us who become enslaved to the pursuit of money may give up on our relationships, our families and our wellbeing. We may obsess on making ends meet, growing our portfolios and having more money than our neighbors. Such individuals are not free either.
That may be why we still continue to read in the “Ha Lachma Anya” passage of the Passover Seder, “Presently we are still slaves. Next year we yearn to be free men.” While we may be physically free we still have worries, fears and harmful habits that prevent us from experiencing true freedom. As the Jewish nation of old and as the Hebrew slave eventually learned, our experience of true freedom comes about when we realize that Hashem controls the world and that things will work out as they are meant to be.
Rav Gedalia Schorr, z”l, pointed out that many of the laws concerning Rosh Hashanah shofar blowing were derived from the laws of blowing shofar at the Jubilee year. At every 50th year, property would return to their original owners and slaves went free. The shofar, we are told, awakens us and proclaims our freedom. Not only do our bodies need be liberated, we need to also free ourselves from the worries, fears and habits that potentially enslave us and hold us back from living a truly fulfilled life. As the song in the Broadway musical “Shenandoah” reminds us, freedom is a state of mind.
By Rabbi Dr. Avi Kuperberg
Rabbi Dr. Avi Kuperberg is a forensic clinical psychologist and an avid motorcyclist. He leads the Summit Avenue Shabbos Gemara shiur and minyan in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. He may be contacted at [email protected].