"If thou buy a Hebrew slave, six years shall he serve and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing. If he came in by himself, he goes out by himself. If he is married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master gives him a wife, and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be the master's and he shall go out by himself. But if the servant shall plainly say: I love my master, my wife and my children, I will not go out free, then his master shall bring him to the door or unto the doorpost and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl and he shall serve him forever." (Shmos 21:2-6)
The parashah this week is chock full of mitzvos. We get a hint at dietary laws, social laws, criminal laws and holiday laws. Why would we start off with one that deals with slavery?
One answer is to see beyond the literal words and into the allegorical connotations of the paragraph. The first thing to remember is that we are all slaves. Maseches Avos notes that one has a choice in this world which burden to bear, either the yoke of Heaven or the yoke of worldly affairs. Why must it be one or the other? Because people generally serve a "master", be it God or their own personal desires. No man is truly free if he is truly alive. Thus it is that we seek to be servants to God in this world and the Next through our observance of His Torah.
However, while in this world we need to conduct certain activities to survive. We need to work to earn money to pay for food, lodging and clothing. We need to be part of our communities, to be involved in the social network around us and contribute positively to it. Despite a desire to study Torah all day and learn the will of the Creator, we have a responsibility given to us by Him to engage the world and bring it closer to the Torah's view of it. Thus the contradiction - in order to serve the Will of Heaven, I should ignore the outside world and concentrate on learning. In order to survive and thrive so that I can learn in the first place world, I need to work and divert myself to necessary activities. How can this be resolved?
The answer is in the paragraph quoted at the beginning of this post. Consider the allegory. A Hebrew slave serves for six weeks. We work and complete all our labours over six days. In the seventh year he goes free. On the seventh day, Chazal tell us to consider it as if all our work is completed. Why? Because otherwise despite the rest of Shabbos, one would be in a permanent state of anxiety. What about that report that has to be done by Monday? What about the bills? What about that upcoming meeting? If all our work is done, we are truly free of it. We go out after six days of toil in this world, our material master, to true freedom to be with the Holy One, Blessed Be He.
All labour performed by the believing Jew serves a definite end - the ability to thrive in this world so that we can better serve God. Divorcing the means from the end has terrible consequences, as the Torah goes on to say. One for whom the work of this world becomes an end unto itself, who loses sight of the ultimate reason for needing to labour in the first place, is like the slave who so likes his master that he spurns his one chance at freedom and is therewith indentured forever. The Torah tells us we have a choice - work for God and be free when Shabbos comes to enjoy a greater closeness to Him. Work for ourselves, and we cease to be servants of God (see Rashi on this section) but instead become slaves to our insatiable materialistic desires.
We should all merit to have a restful Shabbos (even you, SJ) and remember the true purposes of our efforts is to enable us to approach to the blissfulness that is closeness to God.