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Parshas Mishpatim (5777)

More To The Ear Than Meets The Eye

  ear (er), n. the organ of hearing in man and other vertebrates, in man
  consisting of the external ear, which receives sound vibrations that are
  passed into the middle ear, causing a vibration of its bones which in turn
  causes a movement of the fluid in the internal ear, the hair cells of which
  stimulate the auditory nerve which transmits the impulse to the brain.

The above is a description of the physical ear, taken directly from the Random House dictionary. The truth is that although the ear is human, to truly appreciate it is divine.


In the very beginning of this week's Torah portion, we are told about the eved ivri, the Jewish person who is sold into servitude by the court in order to pay back the money that he stole. He works for his master for no longer than six years, after which he is set free. If, however, the servant should choose to remain in the service of his master after the six years have elapsed, the Torah then instructs the master to bring the servant to the judges, who will bring him to the door post (of the court). The master then bores through the servant's ear with an awl into the door, and the servant can then continue to serve his master until the Jubilee year (the fiftieth year of the Sabbatical cycle). [see Exodus 21:1-6]

Rashi, the preeminent Bible commentator, quotes the following Midrash:

"And what is it about the ear that it should be bored of all the organs of the body? Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai said: An ear that heard at Mount Sinai, 'for the Children of Israel are servants unto Me', and he went and acquired a different master for himself, let it be bored."

What an "ear-ie" concept! A man decides to be a servant of another human being instead of living independently ... and he gets his ears pierced by the court? What does the Midrash mean that the ear that heard at Mount Sinai that we shouldn't become servants of others, and did so nonetheless, should be bored? If this is some form of punishment, well then didn't our ears hear many different laws at Mount Sinai - such as the laws of observing the Sabbath etc. - yet we don't find a person who is caught transgressing the Sabbath getting his ear bored through the wall!


Rabbi Akiva Tatz, in his book Living Inspired, writes that it is a fundamental teaching of Kabbalah (Jewish Mysticism) that everything G-d created in the physical world is rooted in some spiritual analogue, which is its source. It follows that the physical universe neatly mirrors the spiritual one that nourishes it. Physical reality is merely a refraction of spiritual essence. The way something takes physical shape speaks eloquently about its "form" in the spiritual worlds. In other words, when you examine the characteristics of a given physical object, aside from the scientific explanations of its particular structure and function, there is always an "inner" depth to why the object is the way it is. The physical object has its particular functions because it must reflect its spiritual essence.

When you examine the human ear, you will find two properties that distinguish it from the other sensory organs, such as the eyes and the mouth.

First of all, the ear is the only sensory organ that is entirely passive. Unlike the mouth and nose, which both take in and take out, the ear can only receive information. Even the eyes can take in the sights and also have a proactive effect on things surrounding them. You can see a beautiful sunset, and you can stare or glare at someone you don't like. But you simply cannot hear at somebody - you can only hear what he is saying. Hearing is a one-way street, totally passive. Second, while most of the other bodily orifices and sensory input channels come equipped with structures that enable then to close and shut out what shouldn't be coming in, the ear has no such built-in structure.

So, for example, if you are walking on the beach on a windy day, and you don't want to get sand in your eyes, you can simply shut them with your conveniently positioned eyelids. But if you don't want to hear someone speaking loshon hara (slander or gossip), you have to either put your finger in your ear (kids, try this at home!) or just walk away.

The Kabbalistic explanation for these unique, albeit seemingly trivial, properties of the human ear is as follows: The ear is a physical manifestation of the spiritual element within man that expresses a total willingness to receive the influence of G-d and to be subservient to Him. The ear can be thought of as the ultimate "servant" - it is entirely passive and only takes in and absorbs information, and is ready and positioned to receive that information at all times - even when other sensory organs might be shut closed and non-receptive.

[Now I know that to some of you readers, this might sound like an earful. Yet I hope you will realize that, as most intellectually honest scientists today will readily admit, science itself and the study of the external, revealed world do not have all the answers. A biologist might be able to tell you how a particular organ functions, yet the answer to the philosophical question of why it had to be that way eludes him. The Jewish people have always believed that the answers to the questions that science does not - and cannot - address, can be found in the Torah and the Kabbalah, as revealed to us by the Creator Who fashioned the ear and everything else in creation the way that He saw fit.]


Now, of course, when G-d stood at Mount Sinai and told us that "the Children of Israel are servants unto me", His intent was that we should utilize our unique tool for receiving information - the ear - in order to serve Him. We serve G-d by hearing what He wants from us as specified in His Torah, understanding and integrating that information to the best of our ability, and ultimately accepting it as part of our service to G-d.

As a matter of fact, the mitzvah of reciting the Shema - in which a Jew accepts upon himself the service of Heaven twice daily - starts with the Hebrew word shema, which means to hear, to understand, and to accept. One word with three different, but related, meanings! We are supposed to use our ears to hear, and ultimately to understand and integrate, everything that we learn.

But sometimes we become an eved ivri, a servant to something in the physical world - be it another human being such as our boss, or our career, or our materialistic desires - instead of serving the Creator Who transcends the physical world. At times, our desire to serve whatever it is that we want to achieve, might even tempt us to "bend the law" a little bit.

Now think about it, how does this happen? It can only be because we have used our ear - the ultimate servant and information receiver - to hear, integrate and accept ideas and world views that run contrary to what G-d Has in mind for us.

We have thus abused the spiritual, inner purpose of the ear - to be receptive to spiritual growth and to serve G-d. G-d thus says to us, "I took you out of Egypt to be free to serve Me and to bring out the best that your souls have to offer. But now look what you've done. You have listened with those wonderful ears that I gave you to everyone else out there but Me! I know much more than the people at CBC! Why get your view of the world and your understanding of life from CNN and Scientific American? I wrote the best-selling book of all time - the Bible - you can gain tremendous insight into the world and life right there in My book!".

So the court of old times was instructed to bore a hole through that most precious tool of receptivity, not as a punishment, but rather in order to teach the eved ivri (the Jewish servant), as well as the rest of us, not to abuse the power of our ear!

We have to be extremely careful about we let ourselves and our kids hear, especially these days, when it seems like practically anything goes. And let us hope that throughout our lives we can hear and integrate and accept the sensible and truthful and life-impacting ideas and information that G-d intended for us to hear ... before someone we know gets their ear (or Heaven knows what other part of the body) pierced!

[Sources: Mahara"l Be'er Hagolah by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, Chap. 3; Pachad Yitzchak Pesach Chap. 43]

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