Double Mitzvah – Re’eh

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Tamar Fox. Check out last week’s post in this series, Double Mitzvah – Ekev.

Rated PG-13This week’s parashah, Re’eh, continues God’s instructions to the Israelites about how to behave once they enter the land of Israel. They are extensively warned not to worship any other gods, lest all kinds of terrible punishments be loosed upon them. They are given lists of what animals they may and may not eat, and instructed to tithe, giving 10% of their produce every year to God. They are given the law of the Jubilee year, and a brief summary of how to observe the pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot.

One of the laws described in this week’s parashah involves an indentured servant. If an Israelite has a fellow Israelite as an indentured servant, the servant can stay on for six years, but must be freed during the seventh year. If the servant does not want to be freed, there is a bizarre ritual to mark his desire to stay as a servant. The master is instructed to take the servant in front of the doorpost, and “take an awl and put it through his ear into the door, and he shall become your slave in perpetuity.” (Deuteronomy 15:17)

This raises a lot of upsetting questions. Why would an indentured servant choose to stay with a master when he or she could be freed? Why would choosing to stay need to involve mutilating the servant’s body? Why the ear? Why the doorpost?

I can’t answer all these questions, but one thing that strikes me while reading this is the way that the text recognizes that some life choices need to be manifest physically, on the body. The Torah prohibits tattoos, but evidently allows for piercings–Rebecca is portrayed in the Bible as having a nose ring (Genesis 24:22). The servant who chooses to stay with his or her master is portrayed as having real love for their position as a servant, “But should he say to you, ‘I do not want to leave you’–for he loves you and your household and is happy with you,” (Deuteronomy 15:16). This love is marked with a piercing.

Love can sometimes be quite painful, and it can make us do otherwise unthinkable things in order to be with our partners. The narrative of the Torah is recognizing this, recognizing both that we will sometimes make strange, even painful choices to be with the people we love, and recognizing that sometimes we need things to be external, we need some kind of physical act of bloodshed to mark our partnerships and life choices. In the same parashah the Israelites are warned against human sacrifices, but God seems to accept and understand that there are less harmful but still effective ways that people can mark these milestones.

Shabbat shalom!


Author of Jewrotica's Double Mitzvah column, Tamar Fox is a writer and editor in Philadelphia. She will try anything once, including open relationships, dating someone who is chalav yisrael, and going to Suriname.
  • Ayo Oppenheimer

    What a unique take on these laws, particularly at a time when body modification seems to be on a popular upswing in society. This can also speak to the ritualizing of key moments, often painful moments (i.e. loss, divorce, abuse, etc.), in life through mikvah (ritual immersion) and other personalized ceremonies. There is a definite catharsis that comes from physically demonstrating an action of emotional significance.

    Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem!