In discussing the laws of Jewish slaves and the special degree of compassion that their masters must show them, the Torah concludes with the explanation:
כִּי לִי בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל עֲבָדִים עֲבָדַי הֵם אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם אֲנִי ה' אֱלֹקיכֶם.
"For Bnei Yisrael are My slaves. They are My slaves, whom I delivered from the land of Egypt. I am Hashem your G‑d."
Rashi explains, based on the Midrash, "They are My slaves – My deed of ownership proceeds yours." A Jewish slave's owner has no right to complain when Hashem dictates how he must use his slave, since a Jewish slave actually belongs to Hashem more than to his mortal owner.
The Gemara cites this same verse to explain why the slave's ear is pierced if he chooses to extend his period of servitude past the required six years:
רבן יוחנן בן זכאי היה דורש את המקרא הזה כמין חומר: מה נשתנה אזן מכל אברים שבגוף? אמר הקב"ה: אזן ששמעה קולי על הר סיני בשעה שאמרתי "כי לי בני ישראל עבדים" - ולא עבדים לעבדים, והלך זה וקנה אדון לעצמו - ירצע. ורבי שמעון בר רבי יהודה היה דורש את המקרא הזה כמין חומר: מה נשתנה דלת ומזוזה מכל כלים שבבית? אמר הקב"ה: דלת ומזוזה שהיו עדים במצרים, בשעה שפסחתי על המשקוף ועל שתי המזוזות ואמרתי כי לי בני ישראל עבדים - ולא עבדים לעבדים, והוצאתים מעבדות לחירות, והלך זה וקנה אדון לעצמו - ירצע בפניהם.
R' Yochanan ben Zakkai explained this verse like a string of jewels: Why was the ear, of all parts of the body, chosen to be pierced? HaKadosh Baruch Hu said, "The ear that heard My voice on Har Sinai say, 'For Bnei Yisrael are My slaves – and not slaves to other slaves, shall be pierced for willingly accepting another master.'"
R' Shimon ben R' Yehudah also explained this verse like a string of jewels: Why were the door and its post, from all the objects in the house, chosen to have the slave's ear pierced beside them? HaKadosh Baruch Hu said: "The door and its post were witnesses in Egypt when I passed over the doorframes of Jewish homes and said, 'For Bnei Yisrael are My slaves – and not slaves to other slaves,' when I delivered them from slavery to freedom. They shall bear witness when I pierce the ear of he who willingly accepts another master."
If the ear is pierced to censure the slave for accepting a human master, why is this done only after he chooses to extend his period of service? His ear should be pierced the moment he first chooses to sell himself into slavery.
When a person sells himself into slavery, he is forced to do so by the hardships of his circumstance, as the verse states, "If your brother becomes impoverished and is sold to you…" This is a labor of grim necessity, of hardship and humiliation. It cannot be compared with the service of the Creator, which is a labor of love, joy and honor. Servitude to Hashem is in fact the ultimate freedom, since it breaks the chains that bind us to our ego and our selfish desires. The slave's ear is not pierced when he first accepts a human master over Hashem, since this servitude does not compete with his servitude to Hashem. The two kinds of labor are totally incomparable.
Only after the slave completes the six years of servitude for which he sold himself and is free to go, yet willingly decides to remain, is his ear pierced. He thereby shows that his service is not one of necessity, but one of love, as the verse states, "I love my master… I do not want to go free." Only then does his commitment to his human master compete with his commitment to Hashem, since he has chosen to lovingly and joyously serve his owner in the same way that he should instead be serving his Creator. He shows that he considers it an honor and a privilege to serve his owner, when he should instead feel honored and privileged to serve Hashem. Only in this case is his ear pierced as a sign of Hashem's disapproval.
Love and Commitment
With this we can answer Tosefos' famous question regarding the willingness of Bnei Yisrael to accept the Torah on Har Sinai. On the one hand, the Torah states that Bnei Yisrael were overjoyed to receive the Torah. "Na'aseh v'nishmah – We will obey and we will listen," they said, committing themselves to accept Hashem's sovereignty, without even asking what was expected of them. The Midrash says of this:
"כתפוח בעצי היער" מה התפוח הזה הכל בורחין ממנו שאין לו צל כך ברחו כל אומות העולם מלפני הקב"ה ביום מתן תורה. יכול אף ישראל כן תלמוד לומר "בצלו חמדתי וישבתי" מה תפוח הזה מוציא נצו קודם לעליו כך הקדימו ישראל עשיה לשמיעה.
"As an apple tree among the trees of the forest [so is my beloved among the young men]…" Just as an apple tree has little shade, and everyone runs from it (to find shade under other trees), so too did the nations of the world run from HaKadosh Baruch Hu when He came to give the Torah. Lest we think that Bnei Yisrael also ran from Him, the verse continues, "… His shade I desired and sat there." Just as the apple tree sprouts flowers before it sprouts leaves, so too Bnei Yisrael preceded "na'aseh – will obey" to "nishmah – we will listen."
On the other hand, the Gemara states that Bnei Yisrael were forced to accept the Torah:
"ויתיצבו בתחתית ההר" אמר רב אבדימי בר חמא בר חסא: מלמד שכפה הקדוש ברוך הוא עליהם את ההר כגיגית ואמר להם: אם אתם מקבלים התורה - מוטב, ואם לאו - שם תהא קבורתכם.
"They stood beneath the mountain." R' Avdimi bar Chama bar Chasa said: This teaches us that Hashem held Har Sinai over their heads like a barrel and said to them, "If you accept the Torah – good, but if not you will be buried here [beneath the mountain]."
Tosefos asks why Hashem had to force Bnei Yisrael to accept the Torah under the threat of death, after they had already willingly accepted the Torah by saying, "Na'aseh v'nishmah." He answers that although they had already committed themselves to accepting the Torah, they might have reneged on their commitment for fear of the awesome flames that surrounded Har Sinai.
The study of Talmud allows (and indeed encourages) us to consider other possible answers to questions raised by the Rishonim. Perhaps we can offer a different answer to Tosefos's question. Hashem held the mountain over the heads of Bnei Yisrael, since their avowal of na'aseh v'nishmah was not sufficient proof of their firm commitment to serve Hashem until the end of time, regardless of any difficulties that might arise. They had just witnessed awesome miracles performed on their behalf, in which the entire fabric of nature was torn asunder. They saw their enemies punished with ten terrible plagues. They passed through the Yam Suf on dry land and saw their enemies drowned therein. They were fed with miraculous bread from Heaven, which descended before their doors each morning. Under such circumstances, why should they not commit themselves to Hashem's service?
Yet Hashem wanted to ensure that their commitment would remain firm in the difficult times to come, times in which His loving providence would be hidden from their sight and hardships would abound. He wanted them to understand that Kabbalas HaTorah was more than a voluntary service of love, which they could choose to observe when they could feel Hashem's love, and then renounce when they felt uninspired. Kabbalas HaTorah is indeed a service of love, but it is also a holy obligation, which is incumbent upon us in all times, in all situations, and despite all hardships. To impress upon them this important point, Hashem held Har Sinai above their heads and warned them that they had no choice but to observe the Torah. No excuse in the world could ever exempt them from the obligations they undertook.
The Slave's Conversion
The Gemara discusses a special kind of conversion in which a gentile becomes an "eved Canaani – Canaanite slave", obligated in the Torah's prohibitions and non-time-based positive commandments. He must undergo a conversion process, since he is sanctified with the holiness of the Jewish nation to a certain extent.
The Gemara states that that as soon as an eved Canaani ascends from the mikvah, having completed his process of conversion, a bucket of mortar is placed on his head and he is instructed "Carry this to your master's house." This signifies that he has not been converted to the status of a full-fledged Jew, but to the status of a slave who is now obligated to do his master's bidding.
The laws of conversion to Judaism are based on the episode of Kabbalas HaTorah, since Kabbalas HaTorah was also a form of conversion: in which the entire Jewish people were elevated to their status as the Chosen Nation. In a sense, our conversion was that of a slave. Har Sinai was held over our heads, like the bucket of mortar held over the head of an eved Canaani, to signify our new role as slaves bound to fulfill the will of our Master, Hashem, regardless of our personal preferences.
Hand in hand with this stern commitment is the pride and joy of our elevated status as trusted servants of the King of kings, HaKadosh Baruch Hu. We rejoice with the knowledge that we can draw close to Hashem through our service of love, by carrying the yoke of Torah and mitzvos, regardless of the difficulties involved.
Two Kinds of Slaves
In Shabbos morning davening we say, "Moshe rejoices with his granted portion, since You called him a trusted slave." Moshe, who reached the highest pinnacle of spiritual perfection, was given no other title to describe his greatness than that of a slave to Hashem. We thus see that being called a slave to Hashem is the greatest possible praise. Yet in seeming contradiction to this the Gemara states that when Bnei Yisrael obey Hashem's will we are called His children, but when we do not obey His will we are called His slaves. Moshe was surely obedient to Hashem's will. Why then was he called Hashem's slave, and not Hashem's child?
As we have seen, there are two kinds of slaves. There are slaves who serve by necessity, and slaves who serve with love. When Bnei Yisrael do not obey Hashem's will, we are considered slaves of necessity. We show that we are not truly interested in Torah and mitzvos, and seek any opportunity to absolve ourselves of the burden. This is far from the ultimate potential of Bnei Yisrael, who are meant to be like children, happy and proud to serve their Father.
Moshe, on the other hand, rejoiced to be called Hashem's trusted slave. He served Hashem with love and joy. He viewed the yoke of Hashem's service like a crown of splendor that it was his privilege to wear, as the passage from Shabbos morning davening states, "Moshe rejoices with his granted portion, since You called him a trusted slave. A crown of splendor You placed upon his head." This was the same crown that the angels placed on the heads of Bnei Yisrael when they too expressed their joy to serve Hashem, by declaring na'aseh v'nishmah.
"Please, Hashem, for I am Your Servant"
The Sefas Emes once told his Chassidim that when saying the words “Ana Hashem - Please, Hashem,” in Hallel, it is an auspicious time for all one’s prayers to be answered. A debate then arose among the Chassidim over how to interpret this. Some thought he referred to the verse, “אָנָּא ה' הוֹשִׁיעָה נָּא - Please Hashem, save us.” Others thought he referred to, “אָנָּא ה' הַצְלִיחָה נָּא - Please Hashem, grant success.”
The Sefas Emes's son and successor, the Imrei Emes, realized that both groups were wrong. The Sefas Emes referred to neither of these verses. He referred to the verse, “אָנָּה ה' כִּי אֲנִי עַבְדֶּךָ - Please Hashem, for I am your servant.” When a person lovingly embraces the service of Hashem, he is justified in his request that Hashem remove from him all the difficulties that might hinder him in his cherished duties as Hashem's slave. He dedicates his life to Hashem, and may then beg Hashem to guard him and his belongings, since he and all his belongings are Hashem's.
"I am Your slave, the son of Your maidservant, release me from my bonds." If Hashem were to release me from His service and grant me my freedom, I would never leave Him. "I love my master… I do not want to go free." Of this the verse in this week's parsha states, "They are My slaves" – and not the slaves of other slaves. We must have no labor of love other than the service of Hashem.
 Vayikra 25:55
 Kiddushin 22b
 Vayikra 25:39
 Shemos 21:5
 Shir HaShirim 2:3
 Yalkut Shimoni, Shemos 273
 Shemos 19:17
 Shabbos 88a
 Yevamos 46a
 Bamidbar 12:8
 Bava Basra 10a
 Tehillim 116:16