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Obvious Symbolisms: Awls in Ears

When you acquire a Hebrew servant, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go free, without payment. … But if the servant declares, “I love my master, and my wife and children: I do not wish to go free,” his master shall take him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall then remain his servant for life.

When we read this, we first think of piercing an ear, or a permanent change to a person because they choose servitude over freedom. But there is more provocative meaning in just this one verse alone.

For starters, we are talking about someone who chooses servitude over freedom. We used to think such a choice would be rare, or at least unlikely. But we see in the safety-first culture around us a great many people who would rather have a secure life where they are told what to do, rather than have to make their own decisions, suffer their own consequences, and deal with the vagaries of risk. The decision to remain a servant does not seem quite as unusual as it did before Covid.

But think further on the imagery: piercing the ear of the servant says that the servant will listen to his master forevermore. Freedom means choosing what we want to hear, making decisions based on weighing inputs from different sources. Piercing that ear means that the servant no longer has to weigh different options: he listens to his master.

The door or doorpost in use is that of the servant’s master’s home. Impaling the ear into the doorpost tells us that the servant’s blood is being infused into the symbolism of that door: the physical structure of the home as well as the spiritual structure of that particular family. The servant is choosing to become, for the rest of his life, part of what constitutes the structure that protects and houses the family within.

Going further: the word for “doorpost” is the very same one that we marked with the blood of the sheep at the Passover: identifying a Jewish home for the Destroyer so he would not kill the first-born within. Marking the doorpost with blood is a core identifier for the Jewish people: it advertises who we are, and what our mission on this earth is.

So to impale the servant’s ear means that the servant is identifying with that same mission, aligning himself with the sheep whose blood was used to mark the doors in Egypt. This aligns with the mezuzah (the same “doorpost” word) that Jews put on our homes, reminding us of the words of the Torah when we go out and when we come in.  Jews already constrain our lives with the mezuzah, because these scrolls are constant reminders of our shared background, and our aspirations to be G-d’s emissaries in this world.

Bringing it all together, it helps show how a servant who chooses to stay is doing more than merely choosing servitude over freedom. The symbolism tells us that the servant is choosing to be part of something greater than himself, the entire home and family within that structure, along with the mission that comes along with being part of a family dedicated to serving G-d.

[an @iwe, @susanquinn and @blessedblacksmith production]

Comments are welcome!

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