D’var Torah — We were, and are, slaves

Written by Cantor Tamara Wolfson — 31 January 2022

“We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.” In a few months, we will sit around our Seder tables and recite those words that have formed the foundation of our Jewish story. The ritual of the Seder reminds us to have empathy for our enslaved ancestors. We need these yearly reminders because from one Pesach seder to the next, it is easy to distance ourselves from the experience of slavery.

This week’s Torah portion reminds us again that slavery is within our DNA. It begins with the words: “v’eleh ha’mishpatim asher tasim lifneihem, ki tikneh eved ivri…” “these are the rules that you shall set before them when you acquire a Hebrew slave…” We often read these words and are comforted by their context. These rules about how to treat slaves, they were for our ancestors, thousands of years ago. We don’t need to concern ourselves with whether a slave came to his master single, married or with children, or what someone should do if a slave is displeasing to his owner. These rules aren’t for us. This isn’t our reality.

This past Wednesday, data released by the European Council’s Group of Experts on Action against Human Trafficking showed that the number of trafficking victims in the UK has increased nearly tenfold in less than a decade. And the National Crime Agency reported that as many as 13,000 people in the UK today are being held in modern slavery, with up to one in four believed to be children. Just in the last month, a modern slavery hotline set up by the charity Unseen reported 500 calls to their counsellors, 495 newly opened case investigations, and 161 confirmed cases of modern slavery and exploitation in the UK.

It is easy to distance ourselves from these statistics. The numbers are staggering and upsetting. And the stories of these victims, we tell ourselves, are far removed from our own. But experts have warned that human trafficking is the 2nd largest and fastest growing industry in the world. And it shows no signs of slowing down.

My sister, Sarah Butler, is an Assistant District Attorney in the city of Nashville, TN who advocates for survivors of human trafficking and prosecutes their traffickers. She shared that the most common misconception about human trafficking is that only happens to illegal immigrants. More often than not, she said, human trafficking is personal. It is often the people closest to the victims – a parent or a boyfriend – who force them into their circumstances. And it is happening in everyone’s backyard. “It’s not a comfortable truth for people to hear”, my sister admitted. “But as long as we have vulnerable people in our communities, there will be people who prey on them. People are missing the signs of what slavery can look like today. And it’s happening everywhere.”

Our tradition and our texts are full of reminders not to turn a blind eye to injustice. We are encouraged to see ourselves in the experience of the slave. And while we are accustomed to doing this each year at Pesach, we should also be doing this each day around our neighborhoods.

The simplest piece of advice my sister gave is something that many of us might already do. “Just get to know people”, she said. “Reach out to your neighbors, the children and teens in your lives, and the vulnerable people in your orbit. Don’t be nosy, but don’t be a stranger. Just be a good neighbor.”

In a few weeks time, we will read about the building of the mishkan: the Tabernacle where God’s presence, or shechinah, will dwell. The words mishkan and shechinah derive from the same Hebrew root, meaning to dwell, and also meaning to be a neighbor. From this we understand that we are never truly in isolation. Wherever we live, we do so in relation to our neighbors, our families, friends, and communities. May we never lose sight of our responsibility to care for those around us, to look out for one another, and to be good neighbors, wherever we dwell.

Shabbat Shalom.