Semon: Shabbat Behar 2021

Written by Rabbi Elliott Karstadt — 10 May 2021

At Pesach we celebrated our freedom from slavery. We sang songs, praising God for redeeming us from bondage in the Land of Egypt. We ate matzah – the brittle, dry bread representing our affliction. In our communal seder, I spoke about the three pieces of matzah that we had on our seder table, and that they represent three redemptions – the past redemption from Egypt, which was a complete redemption, and the future redemption in the messianic age (however we might understand that), which Jewish tradition considers also a complete redemption. So, both of these matzot remain whole. But the middle matzah, which represents the present, is symbolically broken in half, an action that represents the imperfection of our world – the world as it is – a world still in need of redemption.


In his commentary on the prayer we say over the matzah, Ha Lachma Anya (the bread of our affliction), Leminny Snicket, writes about the crumbs of matzah that always hang around the house for weeks after Pesach (as some of us might be experiencing in the corners of our cupboards even now) and how this was the same for slavery. It would be easy to sit back and think that the Exodus was the final word on slavery, but it wasn’t. We know that slavery has existed ever since, even today.


According to British charity Stop the Traffick, there are currently 21 million people in modern-day slavery across the globe– and this is a low estimate! They also say that 10,000 people are trafficked in the UK every year. That means people who are either forcibly moved, or tricked into moving from one place to another by people looking to exploit them, through sexual exploitation, domestic servitude, labour exploitation, forced marriage, organ harvesting, forced criminality, drug trade, or turning them into child soldiers. It is a sad state of affairs when in the UK we have a charity that needs to state in its tagline: ‘people should not be bought and sold’ – surely this should be obvious to us by now!


In her book, What is Slavery, American historian, Brenda Stevenson describes how the struggle against slavery was so quickly forgotten about in the United States following the civil war in the 1860s, in which so many died in order that black slaves could be free.


‘Black freedom … was soon challenged, customarily and legally, with the imposition of discriminatory Black Laws, mob rule, Jim Crow, and disenfranchisement. Racial segregation and discrimination, backed by domestic terrorism, were meant to snap blacks back into a place of inferiority, submission, and dependency not unlike the status they held as slaves. Indeed, it would be another hundred years before the Reconstruction amendments would have significant meaning for many African Americans. Even today, the legacies of inequality as victims and defendants in the criminal justice system, and via educational exclusion, economic marginalization, medical experimentation, social isolation, and cultural denunciation – all characteristics of life under slavery – still remain as markers of black life for far too many. So too remains the determination of the descendants of slaves to resist this dehumanization and to insist, instead, on equality.’ (Brenda E. Stevenson, What is Slavery? p. 185).


Our Torah – in our parashah of Behar this week – also seems to have forgotten what was affirmed just a few weeks ago at Pesach. Not in the part Rabbi Colin read today, but elsewhere in the parashah, we read how Israelites would be entitled to take non-Israelites as slaves. Not only that, but they are given permission to enslave the children of their slaves as well.


What are we to do with these parts of our tradition? How are we to continue to revere our texts when they say things like this?Some may argue that this is simply no longer relevant to us; that the rules about which we read today refer specifically to the people who dwelt in the Land of Canaan before the Jews conquered it. Since those nations no longer exist, it’s no longer a problem for us as twenty-first century Jews. We simply shouldn’t worry about it.


Others will approach the problem historically. They will say: that was then, this is now. We simply have to see the Torah in the historical context in which it was written.


Yet others would say: stop reading these outmoded texts – what is the point of reading something that appears to be so morally abhorrent. Surely it would be better to repeat the reading of a few weeks ago, which said much nicer things.


I’m not sure that I buy any of these answers.


The nations that the Israelites are told to enslave no longer exists, fair enough. But to assert this is to by-pass the equally compelling fact that those living in Canaan before the Israelites were, despite the Torah’s prejudice against them, human beings of flesh and blood just like us.


The answer that might lead on from this is the historical one – that while we might live in a world that places value on every human life, this was not true of the historical context in which the Torah was written.


Wouldn’t that be to suggest that the authors of the Torah did not see the irony that only a few feet earlier in the scroll they had spoken of the liberation of the Israelites from the very kind of slavery it is now condoning??!?


There are others who would argue that the slavery depicted in the Torah is self-consciously not the kind of slavery the Israelites were subjected to in Egypt – slavery in the Torah is severely limited: for example, if the owner of a slave were to maim his slave, then the slave would be set free. Minimum requirements are set for the way in which a slave of an Israelite must be treated.


This was an argument made by Rabbi Leo Baeck in his early-twentieth-century apologetic for Judaism – that Jewish slavery was fundamentally distinct from the slavery that existed in neighbouring civilisations.


If this is true, then it must force us to recognize two things:


  1. That the Torah still speaks of the idea that one person can legally and legitimately own another person for their own benefit;
  2. That the eradication of the evil of slavery is a gradual process, and is unlikely to happen overnight.


Slavery was the mode of existence to which the Israelites had become accustomed in Egypt – violence was a language they understood all too well. Hence the need for so much time wandering in the wilderness before being allowed to settle in the Promised Land.


In a poem about Pesach, the Jewish poet and liturgist Alden Solovy speaks of how, in this period of the Omer, we still have Egypt inside of us:


This I confess:

I have taken Egypt with me.

I’ve kept myself a slave to grief and loss,

Fear and anger and shame.

I have set myself up as a taskmaster,

Driving myself beyond the limits

Of reasonable time and common sense.

I’ve seen miracles from heaven,

Signs and wonders in my own life,

Yet I’ve taken Egypt with me,

Still waiting for heaven to speak.


Slavery is not something that can be shrugged off so quickly. Those who have been abused are perhaps even more likely to be perpetrators of abuse. Human violence takes a cyclical pattern, and it might take generations to redeem ourselves from it.


So, the answer that I prefer to give to the question of how to deal with these parts of our tradition, is that we can see our Torah as a sacred text, and at the same time feel free to disagree with it.

After all, aren’t we Israel – the people who struggle and strive with God.

We are in covenant – in divine conversation – not blind obedience. Particularly as Progressive Jews, we see our role as questioning our tradition, interrogating it in order to understand how to lead our lives.


This is also, furthermore, a response to those who would advocate for abandoning the troublesome texts out of hand: in its condoning of the practice of slavery, the Torah presents us with a challenge, as much for today as for three thousand years ago. The challenge is one that exists in us too.

There is always a potential in every situation for us to take the root that is more oppressive, more harmful to others.

We are always able to choose to oppress, enslave, take advantage of our fellow human beings – even in ways that often seem quite benign.

But presenting these laws, the Torah reminds us of how easy this is, but just because the Torah permits it, does not mean we have to do it. This is the test of our modern Progressive Jewish lives.


Alden Solovy’s poem ends with a blessing:


Blessed are you, God of wonder, You set your people on the road to redemption.


This requires strength – moral and psychological strength. This is the last time I will be the last time we read from the Book of Leviticus this Jewish year, so (even though the weekly cycle of Torah readings continues) it seems appropriate to recite the words we say at the end of a book of Torah: Hazak hazak venithazek.

Strength, strength, let us be strengthened.