What the well-dressed slave is wearing

In the Torah portion immediately following the encounter at Sinai, God floods Moshe with numerous detailed commandments on how to live. The first mitzvah on the list? What to do if you have acquired yourself a Hebrew slave. The care and maintenance of a Hebrew slave turns out to be a complicated matter and its peculiarities peak at the moment when your slave is entitled to release. What if he decides to stay?

According Shmot 21:6, you are then required to mark him by piercing his ear. All the commentaries agree that this is intended to be a permanent mark but, oddly enough, it never occurred to me until this time around in the Torah cycle that this means your slave must wear an earring. Those of us who have pierced ears know that, if you go without earrings for a while, the hole closes up. So maintaining the piercing as a permanent mark means jewellery.

Why the ear? As the commentaries point out, the ear that heard God at Sinai should not be demeaned by serving a mere human being. It’s not slavery that is shameful; it’s voluntarily choosing to be enslaved that gets your ear pierced.

Having got so far, I then realized that earrings play another important role in the book of Shmot. They were the material from which the golden calf was formed. (See Shmot 32:2). And then I wondered whether the crowd that harried Aharon into assembling the calf was a bunch of slaves. If so, no wonder Aharon had to tread so carefully. The commentaries speak of his having been intimidated by the threat of violence but maybe something else was happening.

On the one hand, here is evidence that the people of Israel do have a spine — a quality that had been destroyed during the Egyptian slavery and that the wandering in the desert arguably was necessary to reconstitute. Instead of entering into a family squabble about the women’s and children’s jewellery, they strip their slave-earrings out of their own ears. Should he squelch this spirit by overbearing them and denying their request for a symbol of God to march at the head of the nation? Let them take off the earrings and transform themselves.

On the other hand, their gesture towards independence–the casting off of the earrings–is taking them in the wrong direction, towards idolatry. How can he allow this to occur if, fresh from Sinai and with God’s words ringing in their ears, they are seeking out a representation of the ineffable?

No wonder Aharon keeps waiting for his little brother to come back down the mountain and solve the problem.


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