The following is the second in a series of excerpts from Uri L'Tzedek's "Rising in the Night: Compassion and Justice in a Time of Despair," a collection of reflections, poems and calls to action intended to bring mindfulness and social justice to the experience of Tisha B'Av.
Lonely sits the city
Once great with people!
She that was great among nations
Is become like a widow;
The princess among states
has become a slave."
Thus begins the reading of Lamentations, the Bible book traditionally read by Jews marking the ninth of Av, the day we commemorate the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, 2,000 years ago. Along with the destruction of the Temple, we also mark many tragedies that befell the Jewish people during this time, including the tragedy of the remnants of the cities of Jerusalem who were taken as slaves. The theme of forced slavery runs throughout the literature of the time. The Roman centurions enslaved thousands upon thousands of Jews. The Roman historian Dio Cassius wrote that the glut of persons flooding the slave market caused the prices to plummet. The Torah's nightmare, written thousands of years before, had become manifest: "And there you shall be sold to your enemies as slaves and maidservants, but there shall be no buyers" (Deuteronomy 28:68).
A nightmare that, thank God, has passed.
Or has it? Perhaps for you and I, but today, this nightmare persists for millions of human beings around the world. There are an estimated 30 million slaves in the world, perhaps more than at any other point in history.
Thirty million. What does that number mean to you? To me, to be honest, it means almost nothing at all. In my mind, I cannot conceive of it. Like many of the tragedies we mark today, its massiveness makes it almost unreal, lacking relatable personal meaning. How could such a terrible thing truly be part of the world in which I live?
Perhaps that explains why, in the middle of kinnot, we read a story about two slaves. Kinah 23 re-tells the story found in the Babylonian Talmud Gittin 58a of the two children of Rabbi Yishmael, the Kohen Gadol. Following the conquest, his son and daughter were taken as slaves by different Roman masters. Because of their beauty, their respective masters decided to force them to breed, to produce children who could be sold for even more money. They were each thrown into the same dark, dank cell, neither knowing that they were paired with their sibling. All night, they cried and wailed before their "wedding." As the dawn broke, they recognized each other, embraced and died.
This kinah concretizes and humanizes the pain and suffering of thousands of real-world slaves. The suffering of millions is impossible to understand and hold purely in conceptual form. We can, however, realize the suffering of two, related in the haunting resonances of a story, which will not allow us to forget.
Similar to the tale told in our own Talmud, here is a story one of the 30 million human beings in the world who have been trafficked as slaves, as told by the Polaris Project, an international NGO that focuses on the fight against contemporary slave-trafficking:
Several years ago, Gabriella lived in Colombia with her family and worked at a grocery store. As the eldest child, she had to provide for her mother and sisters after her father committed suicide. A childhood friend of Gabriella's moved to the United States some years before, and he offered to help her move to America every time he visited Columbia. He promised he would help her to find work in a restaurant so she could better support her family. After a year, she agreed.
The next thing she knew, Gabriella was taken to the U.S. and forced into prostitution. Not only was she held in debt bondage for $10,000, but she was told that if she tried to escape, her family would be harmed. For five long years, Gabriella lived as the property of her traffickers. She was moved to a different brothel almost every week, never knew where she was, and wasn't able to seek outside help.
Unfortunately, Gabriella's story is not unique. Polaris Project regularly assists victims of human trafficking who are left without homes, employment, family or friends. Fortunately for Gabriella, Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) caught her trafficker. Gabriella was rescued through a raid that ICE did on the brothel where she was held. ICE referred her to Polaris Project for services.
Gabriella met with one of our case managers at least once a week for much needed emotional support and comprehensive care. Polaris Project assisted Gabriella in finding an apartment for her and her 2-year-old daughter, helped her enroll in ESL classes, and provided her with employment assistance.
Kinah 32 reminds us that when we think about darkness and suffering in the world, it is necessary for us, as humans, to focus on the stories of individual persons as well as the objective stakes of large scale atrocity. We cannot allow the sheer immensity of injustice to become mere facts and figures, a concept used in discourse alone. Only through our commitment to the lives of real people can we fully commit ourselves to true redemption. We cannot allow suffering to remain anonymous. Torah teaches us that our thinking of pain and injustice must be considered in radically personal terms. When the Kadosh Baruch Hu commands us to be mindful of the pain of marginalized, the Torah says, "Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there" (Deuteronomy 24:18).
As we confront the stark reality of human trafficking, and as we recommit ourselves to fighting it, we must take time to think of the individual lives this evil affects each and every day. Untold numbers of vulnerable individuals, like Gabriella, are preyed upon and then bought and sold into a life stripped of the most basic forms of human dignity. From our largely comfortable positions in our home communities, it is frankly almost impossible to truly see human trafficking as part of our worlds. But it is; its presence has not been removed only disguised. This is why we must focus on the stories of those affected, to break down our assumptions of the composition of our world, and we must sincerely change our minds. And only then can we really begin to do something about it.
This column is an excerpt from "Rising in the Night: Compassion and Justice in a Time of Despair," a social justice Tisha B'Av Supplement published by Uri L'Tzedek. The title "Rising in the Night" alludes to one of the Book of Lamentations' most striking lines, imploring the reader to, "Rise and cry out in the night ... pour out our heart like water before the presence of the L-rd; lift up your hands to Him for the life of your children, those who are faint with hunger, at the opening of the streets" (Lamentations 2:19). The pain experienced during the most heightened moment of national despair becomes a compulsion to care for the vulnerable in one's community.
This is the nexus promoted by "Rising in the Night." Uri L'Tzedek seeks to connect the Jewish people's communal narrative of destruction and promised redemption to issues of social justice, which resound in us today. The exile central to Tisha B'Av can make us more aware of today's plague of human trafficking. The narrative of that most high city being brought low can make us more sensitive to more personal forms of despair, such as increasing incidents of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. All of these convergences and more are brought together in "Rising in the Night," which will soon be available for download here.