Default settings are a powerful thing. We know, for example, that if our computers are set to print double-sided as a default setting, we will save pounds of paper over the course of the year. If we make arrangements for our retirement savings to be automatically deducted from our paychecks, we are far more likely to save sufficient funds than if we need to think about it each month. Default settings can help us habituate ourselves to positive behaviors, but they can also be quite dangerous. In Parashat Mishpatim, we see the dangers of being unable or unwilling to change entrenched modes of thought and behavior.
Here we are deep in the narrative of Exodus, having been redeemed from slavery in Egypt and having just received the Torah at Sinai. And yet, we are immediately confronted with laws concerning an individual who wants to remain a slave. These laws are both surprising and somewhat predictable. We know from midrashim that fourth-fifths of the Israelites were not redeemed from Egypt because they preferred the familiarity of slavery to the radical newness of freedom. Even the one fifth that did cross the Sea of Reeds would whine bitterly to Moses about preferring the creature comforts (real or imagined) of Egypt to the barrenness of Sinai. There is a part of the human condition that relies strongly on default settings, even when our default settings are frustrating, injurious, and even dehumanizing.
One of the interesting elements of the laws pertaining to “voluntary” slavery is that a person must have their ear pierced on the doorpost of their master’s house if he chooses to remain in servitude. Doorposts are imbued with deep meaning in the Bible. We put the blood of the Pascal offering on doorposts so that the angel of death would know to pass over our homes in Egypt. It is also the place where we affix mizuzot, reminding us of G-D’s laws every time we enter or leave our homes. The doorpost is at once one of the most stable parts of our homes, but also the quintessentially liminal space where private and public spaces are created and delineated.
Why does the man who chooses to remain a slave need to pierce his ear on the doorpost? According to Rabbi Shimon in the Gemara (Kiddushin 22b, cited in Rashi’s commentary), “...why were the door and the doorpost singled out from all the fixtures in the house? The Holy One, blessed is God, said: The door and the doorpost were witnesses in Egypt when I passed over the lintel and the two doorposts, and I said, ‘For the children of Israel are slaves to Me; they are My slaves,’ but [they are] not slaves to slaves, and [yet] this one went and acquired for himself a master-[his ear] shall be bored before them [for everyone to see].” The doorpost plays a dual role: 1) it reminds the man choosing to remain a slave that God redeemed him from slavery and intended for him only to be a servant unto God and not another human being 2) publicizes this man’s choice along with its painful consequences.
Most of us are not publicly shamed for our self-harming default settings, nor do we engage in rituals that make us aware of the negative implications of our repeated choices. However, this week’s portion reminds us that retaining the status quo is not always in our best interest. In many way the voluntary slave is lucky to have this ritual that makes him think more deeply about his choice, and will hopefully encourage him to liberate himself once the Jubilee year arrives. We have just celebrated Tu Bishvat, the New Year of the Trees and the celebration of life renewed after hibernation and death. Let us employ this Rosh HaShanah as a time to reevaluate our default settings, keeping the ones that help us stay on the right path, and breaking with the habits that keep us enslaved to behaviors and mindsets that hold us back, depress us, and keep us from being the people we want to be.