Today's Slavery

Yesterday in synagogue, I spoke about slavery and the plan of Joseph to provide food for the Egyptians by ostensibly making them slaves to Pharaoh. With "no bread in all the world, for the famine was very severe," (Gen. 47:13) the Bible describes Joseph's plan as he takes the people's money, then their livestock, land and eventually their very beings, as collateral for food. While I am a huge fan of Joseph, and actually believe him to be the most important emotional and spiritual figure in the Torah, his plan in Egypt leaves a great deal to be desired.

However, in the face of famine, we also see the desperation of the people who will go to any length to get food for themselves and their children. In fact, it is the Egyptian people themselves that say, "Let us not perish before your eyes, both we and our land. Take us and our land in exchange for bread, and we with our land will be serfs to Pharaoh." (Gen. 47:19).

One man in my congregation, a 94 year-old Holocaust survivor, expressed some sympathy for these people because he said that one doesn't know the extremes one will go to get food in horrible circumstances. It was a poignant and profound moment in our discussion. However, my point was to discuss the issue of slavery and how, sadly, the reality of slavery continues to exist in our supposed progressive, advanced and profoundly technological 21st Century. In relationship to the reading in the Bible, Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America, quotes ethicist and author Leon Kass, who says, "Joseph's consolidation of Pharaoh's power will result in the practice of wholesale slavery. Thanks to Joseph's agrarian policies, Egypt is transformed into a nation of slaves and Pharaoh becomes Egypt's absolute master."

Rabbi Kahn-Troster also makes the salient point that Joseph's "solution" has long-term implications, for it extends a system of indebtedness and servitude to future generations. As we end 2009, I want to share with you some very sad and scary facts about our world, facts that are as difficult today as they were 3000 years ago in ancient Egypt.

By conservative estimates, there are 27 million people being held in bondage today, more than at any other time in human history. Are most of us even aware of this? Do we care? Can we do anything about it? Sadly, the answer to the first two questions is mostly no, but thankfully, the answer to the last question is yes. Did you know that the US State Department estimates that 14,500 to 17,500 foreign nationals are trafficked into the United States annually? These people are held in urban centers and work in homes, factories, restaurants, agriculture, and more, many of them right under our very noses. According to the Polaris Project, human trafficking is the second largest and fastest growing criminal activity in the world. Certain industries, such as coffee, chocolate, cars may be traceable to slave labor. And most scary of all, ECPAT USA estimates that over 2 million children, as young as 6 years old, are exploited in the child sex trade around the world today. The problem exists everywhere, including here in the United States. We are allowing children to be bought and sold right here in our beloved country. I have children and I can't imagine what it must be like for these families and kids, a true modern-day horror show right before our eyes. And, like the desperate people of ancient Egypt, traffickers prey on people who are most vulnerable, have little or no employment opportunities, have unstable or harmful home lives or have survived traumatic childhoods. They are promised better lives, only to be enslaved against their will. And, like the indebtedness of the ancient world, these people pass on their debt to the next generations, forcing a life of slavery onto children and grandchildren. Is this the kind of world we want to be living in? Is this the kind of world that we think we are creating?

Rabbi Kahn-Troster makes one more point that I found valuable in this discussion. She says that intergenerational debt is not always found in slave-like conditions. Debt bondage can be found all over the world. It often starts with a short-term financial crisis, an urgent medical issue or a lackluster harvest, and a person borrows a small sum. Additional fees, interest and penalties balloon the debt beyond its original size. Unable to pay off the loan, the borrowers becomes "enslaved" to the creditor. Like the ancient Egyptians, no one faced with starvation or a critically ill family member could envision that the act of taking the loan would lead to generations of enslavement, violence and poverty. We must all be aware of these situations and work together to find plausible solutions. The U.N. Declaration of Human Rights declares that nobody will be a slave in our world; we have yet to live up to that great decree, and in fact, it appears that we are further away from that great human vision than ever before. While the world may not be facing a looming figure like Hitler today, we are facing a crisis of bondage and slavery that appears to be even larger and more perverse, albeit mostly hidden, than the Holocaust. And that is not an easy or safe thing for a Jew, let alone a rabbi, to say.

What are we to do? Becoming aware and awake to this tragic problem is the first step. Share this information with others and discuss it in your homes, places of worship, community centers and with elected officials. Take time to investigate the source of products you buy. Fair trade coffee and chocolate are readily available and if we all start purchasing them, we can make a difference. And, remember that we are in this fight together, and that it is pervasive. Our clothing, cars, computers, cell phones, appliances, etc., all of these everyday items might be made by slaves. That is unacceptable in our world. And we can learn a lesson from the biblical Joseph, even as we criticize his plan.

A few chapters earlier in Genesis, Joseph, the viceroy of Egypt, after having toyed with and gotten some revenge on his brothers, is approached by his brother Judah, who is begging for their lives and the life of the youngest brother Benjamin. After hearing the story, Joseph is "unable to restrain himself any longer" and finally reveals himself to his brothers. (Genesis 45) What I said yesterday to my congregation is that we need to arrive at the emotional place of Joseph in regard to slavery in our world and the horrid conditions that we have allowed to arise because of our consumerist drive. We need to be "unable to restrain ourselves" and rise up to change our world. As long as the majority of human beings, myself included, remain passive and impartial to the situation, exploiters will continue to run amok. As long as we continue to worry only about ourselves and our stuff, children will be enslaved, human beings will be held in bondage and nothing will change. 27 million people are waiting for this change. Every minute longer that we wait, the stain of our immorality grows. As an ancient Jewish teachings implores, "if not now, when?"

More information can be found at the website of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America, www.rhr-na.org. I also thank Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster for her teaching from American Jewish World Service's 'D'var Tzedek.' Read more at www.ajws.org.