The Awl and the Door

Seems like almost all my posts lately have been about mortality. Here’s a little break.

Parshah Re’eh (Deuteronomy 12-16) is packed with structures and laws put in place to protect us from each other and to guide us into a closer relationship with God. One section of this parshah gets my full attention every year. This year, I found something new in it.

Chapter 15 explains that if a kinsman fell on hard times and sold himself in slavery to another, the slave-owner by law must not only set him free after seven years, but send him out loaded with livestock and plenty of food and drink to start a new life. But if the enslaved brother has come to love the owner and his family and prefers his life with them, the owner will pierce his ear against the wooden door with an awl and that’s that. The slave is his slave for life. The same goes for a female slave who makes that choice.

The Haftarah portion is Isaiah 54:11-55:5. The high point for me in previous years has always been verse 54:17 (“No weapon sharpened against you shall succeed”), probably because I’m such a worrier and I find that image hugely comforting. But this year, I carried the story of the eternally devoted slave with me as I read the passages, and verses 55:1–2 fairly roared from the page for my attention:

Ho, everyone who is thirsty, go to the water, even one with no money, go, buy and eat; go and buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you weigh out money without getting bread, and exert your efforts for that which does not satisfy?

Certainly, there are plenty of other verses in the Haftarah that complement Parshah Re’eh’s teachings, but this little section of Isaiah helped me to see the slave’s decision in a new light. I always admired the slave for choosing love, devotion, and humility over material goods and independence. That is a tough choice. But I confess, I also suspected him (or her) of selling out a little. “Hey, it’s comfortable here at my master’s house. I know what to expect, I’m safe, I have my place well defined, and I’m treated well.”

What if setting out free and clear, all debts forgiven, with enough food and stuff to start anew might generate a more satisfying existence? I would have struggled terribly, chafing at the bit, with this choice if I were that slave.

I believe the answer is sparkling up at me in Isaiah’s words, a gem waiting to be scooped up and treasured. Guess what? I am struggling with that choice. I am that slave. Opportunities abound daily to turn away from the peace and wholeness I have found in God’s living water. I stray, I look back, I look forward; I lay plans and play the What-If game inside my head.

And I am learning, despite my preference for independence, fresh starts, and the gold ring just outside my grasp, that the humble slave’s choice is indeed a beautiful thing. When that awl is sharpened to pierce my ear to the door, it won’t be a weapon at all. And it will succeed where all else has failed.

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