Rabbi Sandra Kviat, 16 May 2019
Freeing the captive
Somech noflim, v’rofeh cholim, umatir asurim
You support the falling and heal the sick, you free the captive.
In every Amidah, the core prayer of our services, we repeat these words, and yet as we see in this week’s parasha, even after the Exodus from Egypt slavery is still in existence.
Bnei Mitzvah students always stumble of this parasha for it comes as a shock to discover that the Torah contains laws about slavery by Israelites, not just of Israelites. We all know the Pesach refrain – we were slaves in Egypt, and the idea of freedom from oppression is a core part of our Jewish identities. On Pesach we remember the exodus from Egypt, and see ourselves as liberated slaves (lirot et atzmo) as it says in the haggadah. We taste bitter food to remind us, we sing and teach our children to participate in this communal story about the value of freedom. Though the stories of Moses early life and his growth as a leader are difficult we relish them for we know that we are on a moral high, and then we crash into today’s parasha.
Our reading this week discusses slavery (again), but the slavery inflicted by the former Hebrew slaves onto others; and it’s not the softer version like in Mishpatim in Exodus with its limitations on enslaving Israelites; like the case of the Hebrew man who is unable to pay his debt and is therefore forced into servitude (though limited), or the impoverished father who sells his daughter into slavery (though she was destined to be more of a concubine than actual slave).
It’s a hard fact to accept that Jews kept slaves right after Egypt, or at least that the writers of the Torah chose to discuss the institution of slavery while slavery was still fresh in the minds of the characters. It is only eased by how the Torah highlights their rights; generally limiting the years of servitude to six years, having certain rights and protection, and if running away they should not be returned. Beneath the status as slaves there is a sense and value of them as human beings.
Except of course for the non-Israelite slave.
“You can acquire slaves from the nations that surround you. 45 And also, you can acquire slaves from the settlers’ children that live with you. And their families that are with you, who were born in your land, will be your property. 46 You may pass them onto your children after you and they can be inherited as property forever. Such people may be treated as slaves”. (Lev 25.45-46).
The non-Israelite slave was property, could be mated to breed more slaves, could not choose his or her partner or reject him/her for that matter, and they could lose their children if the master decided it, even if the father/husband was an Israelite slave.
And here lies our dismay, here is our discomfort. As modern people we find it highly problematic that slavery is acceptable at all, but I’ve always been proud that in the Torah the slavery described was not like the cruelty of Egyptian or Greek slavery or the more recent Transatlantic slave trade. For in the Torah there was a way out, an end to the servitude not based on the whims of the owner, but on law. That’s why the shadowy figures of the non-Israelite slaves leave a bitter taste in our mouths.
And they still exist today, in the shadows. The Global Slavery Index is the flagship report produced by the Walk Free Foundation, a global organisation dedicated to ending modern slavery. The latest report released in 2016 estimates that there are 40.3 million slaves in the world, up from 35.8 million in 2014.
In the UK the National Crime Agency estimates that the number of people trapped in situations like forced labour, domestic servitude or sex exploitation exceeds the tens of thousands, and a significant proportion of those are children.
The stories are not hard to find; two clicks and you can find the harrowing account by Serena from Gambia, Brenda from Uganda, Albert from Britain, or Fredek from Hungary.
The shadow of slavery still hangs over us; and not just in the sex industry, but amongst the people who clean our offices, wash our cars, or pick the food that we eat. Admittedly the shadow in the UK is not too deep, but more and more stories are coming to light every day. We know that modern slavery exists, not just out there in faraway countries where we have little or no control or influence, but also right here in our cities, perhaps even on our doorstep, in our workplace, or where we buy our lunch.
We have no issues with questioning the Torah for its lack of denunciation of slavery. But do we ask the same question of our own lives, the places where we have some influence? I know my cleaner is a legal immigrant (she’s Polish), we pay her the London Living Wage, she has a bank account, a passport, a car, and a flat, and she’s getting an education. But I have no idea about the people working in my son’s nursery, or who cleans my grandmother in law’s building, or who picks the tomatoes that I eat. There are forced labourers working in car washes, in factories, in nail bars, and in the catering industry in this country. We can’t change the whole world, but we can ask questions of those who are near to us. Do you know the situation of those who clean your home/office/nursery/nursing home/car? The least we can do is look for the shadow of forced labour where we live and work. And if you do suspect someone might be a victim of forced labour the app Unseen UK, operated by the Modern Slavery Helpline, gives helpful advice and makes it possible to refer your suspicion to the authorities. Importantly, you should NOT confront them or cause a scene as it is likely that it will cause them increased harm.
It can be hard to see how we can help people not get into modern slavery in the first place, as modern supply chains are so complex and vast, yet there are many organisations that work simultaneously at a local and governmental level to prevent people falling into slavery in the first place. And we can help by being aware and reacting to what we see around us.
Our haggadah reminds us to lirot et atzmo, to see ourselves as if we had personally come out of Egypt, but in the Sephardic tradition, there’s a slight but vital difference, as it says l’harot et atzmo, to show oneself, as though they’d come out of Egypt. L’harot, to show oneself, is an obligation to act, as well as the demand to remember.
The existence of slaves and slavery laws in our tradition can be seen as a blight, or it can teach us that we do not brush the most difficult aspects of our world under the carpet. When we say; ‘somech noflim, v’rofeh cholim, u’matir asurim’, we’re not just reciting words of praise, we’re reminding ourselves that it is ultimately up to us to help free the captive or the enslaved.
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