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The Problem Is In The Ear

Mishpatim (Exodus 21-24 )

by Rabbi Yissocher Frand

Six years is more than enough for a Jew to be an eved Ivri, an indentured servant to another Jew. But what if he likes the comfort and security of a life of servitude? Can he stay? The Torah describes a process by which this can be accomplished. The owner drills his ear near the doorpost, and then he can remain with him in perpetuity until the Yoveil year interrupts his servitude.

Why is his ear drilled? The Talmud explains (Kiddushin 22b) that this is the ear that heard Hashem say on Mount Sinai, "Avadai heim. They are My servants." Therefore, if he chooses to remain in servitude, his ear is pierced.

The Sfas Emes is puzzled. Why is the ear pierced? Why not the brain? Why not the heart? After all, the brain and the heart make all the decisions. The ear is but one of their tools, their receptors of information. Why does the ear take on such disproportionate importance here?

The problem, explains the Sfas Emes, really is in the ear, because Hashem's message never reached the brain; it remained in the ear. This man may have heard Hashem state on Mount Sinai, "They are My servants." But the import of the words never penetrated to his brain and heart. He never really gave them much consideration. He never viewed himself as Hashem's servant, and therefore, he saw no conflict n becoming the servant of another man.

Rabbi Michel Twerski of Milwaukee, a practicing rabbi and psychologist, pointed out to me that patients in therapy can often discuss a problem and see the solution but they just cannot implement it. They hear what needs to be done, but it does not penetrate to their brain. They cannot translate it into a personal reality. Rabbi Twerski believes that we have become a spectator society. People are conditioned by movies and television to become spectators to the point that they view even their own lives as soap operas. They see the problems, they even see the solutions, but they have no real control. They cannot act to improve their lives and change what is going on in their lives any more than they can change what is happening on the screen. The problem is in the ear.


No one ever heard the Chafetz Chaim say, "That person is talking lashon hara. He is going to get it!" No one ever heard him say, "Look at that person desecrating the Sabbath. He is going to be punished." But when it came to widows and orphans, it was an altogether different story.

During the years when the Cantonist decrees were in force in Czarist Russia, Jewish children were conscripted into the Russian army for twenty-five-year terms. A good many of them did not survive the rigors at all, and among those who did manage to survive, only a handful remained loyal, observant Jews; it was next to impossible to remain observant in the Russian army for one year, let alone twenty-five.

Not every Jewish child was forced to go to the army. There was a quota of Jewish conscripts, and when it was filled the recruiters left, not to return until the following year. Parents would do anything to protect their children from the draft. Heavy bribes often exchanged hands before a child was exempt. A good proportion of the conscripted children were, therefore, orphans who had no one to fight or offer bribes on their behalf.

One time, a wealthy Jewish butcher bribed an army officer to take an orphan rather than his son. When the Chafetz Chaim heard this story, he said, "Wait and see. This man will be punished severely. He will pay a heavy price for what he has done." Thirty years later, the butcher's son came down with cholera and died. The Chevrah Kaddisha was afraid to touch the contaminated body for fear of the contagious disease. The butcher had to dig the grave and bury his son with his own hands.

Why was the Chafetz Chaim so emphatic about the retribution of the butcher who had tormented an orphan when he was never so emphatic regarding other serious sins?

The answer is explicit in the Torah (22:21-23). "Do not torment any widow or orphan. If you surely afflict him, then if he surely cries out to Me, I will surely hear his outcry. Then My anger will flare, and I will slay you by the sword, then your wives will be widows and your children orphans."

The Rambam writes (Yad, Hilchos De'os 6), "One must be heedful of orphans and widows ... because punishment is spelled out in the Torah ... Hashem made a special covenant with widows and orphans that He will respond to them whenever they are tormented and cry out."

The Kotzker observes that all the verbs in the verse appear in the emphatic double form. "If you surely afflict (aneh se'aneh) him, then if he surely cries out (tza'ok yitz'ak) to Me, I will surely hear (shamoa eshma) his outcry." This indicates that tormenting widows and orphans inflicts twice the normal pain. Every taunt, every jibe not only inflicts humiliation, it also reminds them of their earlier loss, that there is no one to come to their defense. The orphan can think, perhaps if I had a father I would not be treated like this. The widow can think, perhaps this would not be happening to me if I my husband were alive. Hashem hears both levels of the torment, and He responds with an appropriate punishment to the tormentor.

Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski was the Rav of Vilna and author of the classic Achiezer. He was also the active leader of Lithuanian Jewry the world over. "For years, I thought my entry to the World to Come would be my Achiezer," he used to say when he was an old man. "However, now I believe it is the money I raised for widows and orphans throughout Europe that will get me into the World to Come."

Rav Yechezkel Abramsky, the brilliant author of Chazon Yechezkel and head of the London rabbinical court, spoke about this topic when he eulogized Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, the Rav of Brisk. "Rav Chaim was a very humble man," said Rav Abramsky. "He always referred to himself as simply Chaim Soloveitchik when he introduced himself or when he signed letters, never as the Rav of Brisk. Except for one occasion. He once heard that a certain widow in Brisk was depressed, and he decided to pay her a visit to cheer her up. When he was still a block away from the widow's house, he sent his attendant ahead with instructions to tell the widow that 'Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, the Brisker Rav, the Chief Justice of Brisk is coming.' To make a widow feel important, Rav Chaim was willing to forgo his natural modesty and use his full title. Otherwise, never."

Rav Abramsky himself was also outstanding in his treatment of widows and orphans. In the last year of his life, when he was already in his frail 90's, he was at his table on Friday night when a widow came to visit his rebbetzin. Rav Abramsky rose from his chair, walked over to the widow and said, "Good Shabbos." He then got a coat from the closet and showed it to the widow, "They just bought me this coat. What do you think? Is it a nice coat?" Amazing! Did Rav Abramsky, a man in his 90's, one of the great men of the generation, care very much about his new coat? All he wanted was to find something kind to say to a widow, something that would make her feel recognized and important.

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