Parshat Mishpatim: Denial and Admission

There are valid reasons for repeating the weekly Torah portions annually.  With each passing year we are different people; we are influenced by evolving experiences and conditions in life. Occasionally, world events also inspire us to read Torah portions from a fresh perspective.

Such is the case with my interpretation of a narrative in this week’s portion of Mishpatim. The portion details some initial regulations about Hebrew servants.  Because of debt or other unforeseen financial setbacks, an Israelite might be forced to sell himself as a slave. The Torah, however, limits the term of servitude to six years.  In the seventh year he is released.  There is one exception to this regulation:  If the slave wishes to remain a slave, his master must pierce his ear with an awl. Following that pleasant ritual, he becomes a slave in perpetuity.

I always interpreted the awl ceremony as a violent ritual; an explicit and convincing argument against becoming a lifetime slave.  Two stories this past week, however, caused a change in perspective.

First, the Polish legislature designed a bill which would make some Holocaust statements a crime.  Polish legislators apparently believe that only a small minority of Poles collaborated with the Nazis. Poland, as a nation, bears little responsibility for the extermination of Jews.  In their eyes, Poland was as much a victim of Nazi aggression as were the Jewish people.  Poles who publicly condemn Poland for its collaboration with the Nazis, might be subject to imprisonment.  Aside from the suppression of free speech, the legislation would deny the Holocaust and create a law which is shameful and dishonest.

The second story is closer to home.  Early this morning I heard a CNN interview with Arthur Jones, a serious candidate for a congressional seat in Illinois’ third district.  Mr. Jones was unapologetic about calling the Holocaust a ‘scam.’ He referred to the international Jewish conspiracy and did not back down from either his rhetoric or his harsh tone. Tragically, this shameful and dishonest Holocaust denier stands to win his party’s primary.

Both of these distressing stories highlight the alarming number of people who still deny the Holocaust and reject the realities of history.  Poland is ready to create legislation which sanctifies Holocaust denial.  A delusional, would-be American politician unabashedly condemns the Jews for creating a false history.  Both stories monumentally insult the Jewish people; they disgrace humanity and demonstrate total contempt for reality.  They reflect the ultimate expressions of denial and dishonesty in their ugliest form.

Whatever we think about his decision, the Hebrew slave, who prefers an awl piercing to personal freedom, makes an honest and conscious choice to remain a slave.  As a slave he offers no denials about who he is. He confronts the truth about his reality; no matter how much the greater Jewish community – and its Torah – urge him (justifiably!) to embrace freedom.  We of course, have the right to criticize him – even severely – but we must respect his honest understanding of the place he occupies within the greater world. In his decision, the Hebrew slave does not denounce the values of freedom for am yisrael.  He merely underplays the value of freedom for himself. At least he has the guts to tell the truth.

As for a denying Polish legislature and a delusional American political candidate:  I suggest some serious reading.  Better yet, while they are still around,perhaps they should speak with a survivor?


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Klayman