T'ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights notes that "t]o be a Jew is to know both slavery and liberation" and that "[b]ecause of the Jewish experience of the Exodus, the Torah commands us to protect the stranger in our midst 36 times — according to the Talmud, more often than the laws of the Sabbath or of keeping kosher." T'ruah continues:
And yet, 3000 years after the Jewish people are said to have been liberated from slavery, and 150 years after the Civil War, more people are enslaved today than at any other point in history. According to the most conservative estimates of the International Labor Organization, nearly 21 million people are held in situations of forced labor today: 3 out of every 1,000 people in the world.
(That's from T'ruah's index page on slavery and human trafficking.)
It's easy to imagine that the story of our Exodus from slavery is ancient history. (Or perhaps that it's not history at all -- for some of us it's a kind of deep literary or spiritual story which doesn't need to be rooted in verifiable historical experience.) It's easy to think about the Pesach story as a metaphor for our relatively comfortable lives: to what -- our jobs, our expectations -- do we enslave ourselves? And how can we know ourselves to be liberated from those places of constriction? Those are great questions. I ask them every year at my seders, and every year the conversations which ensue are meaningful.
But slavery is still real. Slavery happens today. There are people enslaved in actual debt bondage around the world -- and human trafficking, which is a pernicious form of slavery, still happens. (See Slavery, trafficking, and people of faith, 2008.) That's the most extreme example -- but there are also people who work in unthinkably poor conditions for unthinkably small amounts of money, and that's a kind of slavery too. (Are the tomatoes you buy at the grocery store slavery-free?) There are people for whom credit card debts mount so high that they feel as constricting as slavery. (See Credit Card Debt Explained With a Glass of Water.)
When you sit down for your beautiful Pesach meal, be conscious that slavery wasn't just what (might have) happened to the Israelites in ancient Egypt. It isn't just a shameful American legacy. It's something that still happens, in a variety of ways. Our people's central story holds that we were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt but our God brought us out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. It's our job to be the mighty hands and outstretched arms which will free those who are enslaved today.
This post is part of #blogExodus / #Exodusgram. Follow other posts on the path to Pesach via those hashtags!