Human Trafficking: A Jewish Response

TorahSharing the wonderful words of Torah delivered from the pulpit of B’nai Keshet in Montclair, New Jersey by my daughter on the occasion of her bat mitzvah:

Listen carefully to this story from the Talmud:

Two people are traveling in the wilderness, and only one of them has a canteen of water. There is only a little bit of water and if they split the water they will both die, but if one of them drinks the whole thing, they will make it back alive to an inhabited area. Rabbi Ben Petura publicly taught:’ Better both should drink and die than that one see their friend’s death,’ but Rabbi Akiva came and taught: ‘Your life takes precedence over the life of your friend’s.

Do you agree with Ben Petura or Rabbi Akiba?

At first I agreed with Ben Petura but then my father asked me an even more difficult question. He said: If I was a mother and my friend was a mother and we both had babies and the babies were both sick and there was only enough medicine for one baby to live. What would I do? I said that I would give the medicine to my child. Then, when I thought about the water, I agreed with Rabbi Akiba who taught that your own life comes first.

What does this story have to do with slavery?

This story teaches us about the choices that people have to make in a world where there isn’t enough food or water for everybody. Before we had refrigerators and supermarkets and Costco and huge farms, people learned to feed their families first in order to survive. They didn’t care very much about people who were not part of their families and they feared people who were not part of their family. This is what I call living in a “survival mode” and it helps you understand that in a life or death situation you would probably pick life even if it costs a death to someone else.

The first humans, to get food, had to hunt and to gather. There was a scarce amount of food and they would steal from others or kill others to get food. This changed when people started to cultivate land and domesticate animals.

People started to settle down in one place. As a result, some people settled in better lands and they became wealthier than others and classes were created. Some people lived in what I would call a “relax mode” instead of a “survival mode”. Because people had a lot of land and bigger houses, they wanted people who were not in their family to work for them.

Slavery was an easy way to do this. If you had land and lived in “relax mode”, you found a person in “survival mode” and traded food, shelter, and water in exchange for a person working for you. The best situation was having slaves who stayed with you a long time and learned how you did the chores and worked hard. How would you get slaves?

If people were homeless, they wanted food and goods. You could say: “be my slave and I’ll take care of you.” If people tried to make war against you and they lost, you could take them as slaves. The children of the slaves would also become your slaves.

The people with the money and the most resources controlled the slaves. This was mostly men. Men formed a patriarchy to control women and slaves. This happened in nearly every ancient civilization.

What happens if your slave does not do their work?

You could say “you don’t get any food!” But if you did that, the slave would become weak and sick. So in order to keep slaves in line, people would physically hurt them to change their behavior. You would beat them. And if that didn’t work, you would kill them and get a new slave if you could afford it.

Things would be even worse if there is a famine. If there isn’t enough food, you would probably want to save your own family first. If you free your slaves, they might form an army and take your food. So you might have to start by killing your slaves. Does this sound like a familiar story that we read each year? If you are thinking about the Hebrews experience in Ancient Egypt right now then you understand why slaves might become a threat.

Now you might be thinking to yourself – Wait!!!!!! Killing innocent people is not o.k. !!!! They didn’t do anything – which is what innocent means!

The first person to have laws about not killing your slaves was Hammurabi. He said that slaves were property. That may sound bad, but it was actually kind of good!

Here is an explanation from Rav Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel.

Imagine that you own a coalmine. You could hire people for $10 an hour to mine coal. You wouldn’t care about their health because you hire different people everyday. But if you had ten slaves working the mine, you would care more about their health. They are your property. They benefit your life!

Hammurabi was thinking that slavery would always exist, but that laws would help people protect slaves.

The Torah takes this idea even further.

In my parsha, we read that you cannot kill a slave and you cannot injure a slave. God does not want slaveholders to be able to kill or injure their slaves!

There are also special laws for Hebrew slaves. If the slave is a Hebrew, then they are freed in the seventh year of their slavery. If they don’t want to be freed then they get an earring in the top of their ear as a mark that they are now property of the owner.

Also, if you are very poor, you can sell your daughter as a slave but there are laws to protect her. Your daughter would become a wife of the buyer, but not a slave. She can’t be sold off to someone else. If her new husband chooses to have another wife, he still needs to give her the resources she needs to survive.

In general, I think that the Torah’s laws were trying to give the slaves protection. However, I disagree with one of the Torah’s laws.

In the Torah we read: If you hit your slave and the slave dies the next day, you are liable. But if the slave dies two days later, you are not liable. Two days is not a good standard. They probably died because of the rod. If it was longer than that, like a week, it might have been something different that killed them. But really, people shouldn’t be hitting their slaves to begin with.

The big question is: Why didn’t the Torah outlaw slavery?

The Torah did not ban slavery because as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said, g-d knew that people couldn’t change drastically and change so quickly, so therefore g-d “sets into motion” the ideas that will lead people to abolish slavery later.

Today, all nations have laws that abolish slavery, yet it is not abolished. We still have many people who are living in “survive mode” who are taken advantage of.

In preparation for these remarks, I spoke with Keeli Sorensen, the Director of National Programs of the Polaris Project, the largest organization in America dealing with human trafficking. When people say trafficking many people get confused, as it is a hard subject. I have learned from my interview that Trafficking affects so many people and not just girls, but boys and trans gender kids. Trafficking is when a person is forced to either have sex with someone for money or work under slave like conditions. Work trafficking is when you work on a farm, or as a maid, or sometimes at a hotel and don’t get paid for your labor. If you didn’t catch on, this is modern day slavery, and is happening even in New Jersey. Finding a way for these people to speak up is very hard. The Polaris Project helps by having a hotline and then rescuing people. They help with a place to live, education, and programs that restore people’s self-esteem. Government agencies also help the Polaris project and other groups in the U.S. and around the world. The great thing is that you can help. Visit Polaris

In my Torah reading today, one of the harshest penalties is reserved for a kidnapper. Stopping those who traffic in other humans – those who kidnap and enslave in our world, should be a priority for all of us. Many people ask,
“How can I help I am either too young or lost.” You can help whatever age, even if you are just a little kid, tell your friends,” Nobody has the right to hurt you”. You can help out as a teenager by starting a group at your school, or getting your friends to get the apps Eat-Shop-Sleep and Free2Work that help you learn about businesses with labor violations. Teens can help by speaking out and showing that they care about the subject, not just smile and nod. Wink Wink. Adults you have a big one you need to be the mentors, teach kids about the hard subjects and educate yourself on how to help, and make sure that our police enforce the ban on trafficking. The biggest problem all these organizations have is funding. The Polaris project wants to help people but when you don’t have the funding it gets hard. I have chosen myself to give a donation to the Polaris project organization as part of becoming bat mitzvah. This makes me feel that I am impacting lives and getting the world to learn about big issues that people may be scared of.

A Parable for Rosh Hashanah

This is an adaptation of a parable from the Maggid of Dubno (Rabbi Jacob Kranz)

“Once there was a wealthy man who wanted to protect his fortune so he hid his wealth in different places in his house. He died before telling his young son where he had hidden the money. After the father’s death, the son lived in the home but he had no work and he had little to eat. He grew increasingly desperate and one day was counting out his last few silver coins when one of the coins dropped, and he crawled on the dirty floor to find it. He searched all over but he couldn’t find his coin. In desperation he pulled up the floorboards and found one of the sacks of golden coins his father had hidden. He opened the sack and was amazed at his fortune. He searched all through the house and found more and more sacks of gold but he never found his original, lost silver coin.”

I’m not sure what the Maggid of Dubno intended to convey with this story, but I love the juxtaposition of the two ideas: the house (the world) is filled with hidden treasure but the silver coin (youth? innocence? simplicity? the father?) is never found again. The parable also speaks to the idea of “looking for one thing but finding another” – a theme that runs back to Yacov’s “G-d is in this place and I, I did not know” moment. It is also a story about searching – what causes us to search, what we find and what we do not find. 

The parable also has a message for us for the coming year: Keep looking, don’t give up hope – the next floorboard you pull up will reveal great treasures.


Chana’s Prayer: A Commentary for Men

I was asked by the good folks in Charlotte, North Carolina’s Chavurat Tikvah to share a few words on the Rosh Hashannah Day 1 Haftarah. While I didn’t have time to write out a drash, I did put some thoughts together and had a half way decent insight on the topic.

So here’s how I started — Chana’s prayer is a beautiful counter-culture moment in the RH liturgy. Here we are with all this gratitude and all hail God is King talk, and here this woman steps up and prays “al” — “against” God. The Rashba remarks that her prayer was not dignified or proper because she basically said “How could you allow me to suffer like this?” — but that is the very reason why the Talmudic commentators in Bercahot 31a-b love her. They liken her to Moses (and Elijah) as someone who is willing to say to God — “hey what’s going on up there? you need to act down here.”

There is a great bit from Levi of Berditchev on this where he holds the shofar aloft and says: “hey God – you want to hear this? then have my enemies blow it — because you obviously seem to favor them.”

Second — I shared the brilliant commentary of Lori Lefkowitz (appeared in RT). She argues that Chana is not eating – she has an eating disorder, brought on by both the unrealistic demands of patriarchy and by the abuse of Peninah. (there’s even a Midrash that says that Peninah would taunt her by saying (“i’m packing lunch for the children to take to school”) The eating disorder is causing her infertility. But emoting — pouring out her heart — is the self-medicating therapy that she needs. She has the power to break from her depression and self-destruction and become aligned again. (a midrash puts the following words in Chana’s mouth ‘ do you want me to be an angel — to not eat and not have children, or do you want me to be a woman?)

Third — and this is my contribution to all this — is the question “why should men be listening to this story year after year?” My sense is that we need to hear the words of both Elkana and of Eli — two men who obviously do not get how deep the depression and despair of this woman has become. Elkana says “isn’t my love better than ten sons?” — a message to all of us men who think that we are G-ds gift to women, that all they want is our attention and that’s it. Eli, in accusing Chana of being drunk, is a paradigm for all the times that we men dismiss women’s emotions as hysterical. Rather than see the very moment when they are speaking from the heart, we see it as madness. Hearing the story of Chana we are given an opportunity to repent for our inability to respond to the suffering of women — and a charge to change our ways.

The Third Temple

It is Tisha B’av and I write from the city that sits alone. Jerusalem, last night your streets were filled with pilgrim mourners and police forces, pillow-carrying grandfathers and acne-riddled flag waving teenagers, one guy I saw driving through the Jewish quarter on a Kawasaki. Yid on a Mamluk bike traversing ancient Roman sidewalks. Rak po.

So what is my prayer? I would like one day to see the security fence torn down and the concrete and metal from the rubble be formed by a group of artisans and architects into a third temple. A new har habayit in Jerusalem built not from hewn stones, but out of the very symbol of the fear and division between peoples. Large bulldozers ascending the mountain with their sacrifices, cement blocks of watch towers, highway barriers, barbed wire. This I offer up, a new mishkan.

It will all be transformed, swords into plowshares, the barbed wire untangled to create a mosaic of the milky way galaxy, an olive orchard, a single human cell – twelve mosiacs that line the entry way to the new throne of the Divine Presence. Gates will be on all sides of the new Temple, welcoming those from the Egyptian and Babylonian highways, EZ Pass, and we will bring even those small symbols of fear – security alarm sirens, locks, bicycle chains – all of us pilgrims with wheelbarrows full of such things. we will walk, singing songs of redemption, or simply being content with the new silence. the sound of footsteps is music enough.

For the new Tisha B’av we will feast on Leviathan, spilling a few drops of wine for every year that passed that we let our reptilian blood rule our lives. We were like dreamers, we will say, in the new Eden.

Pharaoh’s Daughter: a Midrash on Liberation

The Jewish Week is expanding their roster of rabbinic commentators and Reb Blog got called up to the plate this week. (thanks Jonathan)

Here’s my drash on this week’s Torah portion:

Shabbat Shemot

Revolution By The Nile: Defiance In The Global ‘Egypt’

Fifteen years ago, I was a passenger on a rusty bus headed out of Egypt. Like many of the young Jewish college kids who had found their way to Cairo on a tourist visa, my weeks in Egypt were a revelation to me. I saw thousands of families living in aluminum shacks in an old graveyard. I saw throngs of children impacted by water-borne diseases begging in the streets. I heard screams in the night during a power outage. That was all behind me as the bus winded its way through the Sinai and up ahead I could see blue and white flags waving in the mid-day desert sky. I was headed back home, back to the comfort of my friend’s apartment in Jerusalem, the café on the corner, the cozy chair on the terrace.

The rise from poverty to wealth is one way we continue to view this week’s parsha. We read: “And they cried out to God because of the hard work” [Ex. 3:23], and we are thankful for the outstretched arm of the Holy One that allowed us to elevate our economic status from bottom rung worker to land of milk and honey homeowner. We lean on pillows and sip wine. But sitting on that porch chair, I couldn’t help but flashback to the thousands of poor Egyptians I saw, and wonder: When will they have an “Exodus” of their own?

This concern was at the heart of “liberation theology,” the title given to the South American Christian movement of the 1970s that had its roots in Marxism and used Exodus as a springboard for revolution. Exodus, for Peruvian priests like Gustav Gutierrez, was not about leaving for a promised land, but about transforming nations that had become “Egypt,” into something more than slave camps. Bob Marley sang in 1973: “Today they say that we are free, only to be chained in poverty. Good God, I think it’s illiteracy. It’s only a machine that makes money. Slave driver: the tables are turning!”

To say that Marxist revolutions have not produced such great results would be an understatement. But still, I read this week’s parsha and ask myself: Is there something written in our Torah that is not about leaving Egypt, but about transforming it?

I needed the 1,800-year-old comments of Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai to realize that it is all there in Chapter Two. Chapter Two recalls how Yocheved, Moses’ mother, hides her child and then asks her daughter Miriam to place the boy in a basket on the river Nile. Then the text goes into crisp detail about Pharaoh’s daughter’s discovery of the child. And this is where Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai’s teachings come into play.

In the Babylonian Talmud, in Sotah 12b, Bar-Yochai asks: Why is Pharaoh’s daughter going down to the Nile? He states that she is going down to the Nile to both metaphorically and literally “cleanse herself of her father’s idolatry.” When she asks her servant to fetch the baby, her servants “warn her that she is violating her father’s decree.” And how does she respond? She miraculously “stretches out her own hand.”

I like to read this together with Ibn Ezra’s 12th century commentary on the verse “And she called his name Moshe, and she said: Because I pulled him out of the water” [Ex. 2:10]. First Ibn Ezra notes that the daughter of Pharaoh gives this adopted baby a Hebrew name, and clarifies that the name she chooses, Moshe, actually means “He who pulls.” Then Ibn Ezra suggests that either she “learned Hebrew or she asked a Hebrew about the name.” So, in other words, not only does she seek to cleanse her father’s idolatry and violate his decrees, but to name his grandson with the provocative Hebrew name “He who pulls.”

The 13th century French scholar Hizkiya Hizkuni understood this to be a bit of prophecy — she thinks that Moses will “pull” the Jewish people out of Egypt. But we might take his idea even further: Moses will also pull apart the system of oppression that suffocates Pharaoh’s daughter and the Egyptian people. Like the German Christian martyr Sophie Scholl who opposed the Nazi regime, Pharaoh’s daughter engages in a defiant act that both reaches out with compassion to the oppressed and aims to save the soul of her nation. In the end, her act destroys not only her violent father and his entire army, but the system that made Egyptians into snitches, prison guards, and taskmasters.

So what do we learn from this week’s parsha? And how does it relate to the continued presence of “Egypt” — slavery, poverty, and hard labor – of our day? Are we truly free when four million people (most of them women) are being trafficked between borders? I sense that the Torah includes Pharaoh’s daughter’s story to teach us that it is not only the Jewish people who suffer under the “Egypts” of the world and must boldly defy the Pharaohs, but all those who are forced into submission or silence. Even those in the royal courts. The Torah reminds those of us in cozy chairs that we all must go down to the Nile, cleanse ourselves of the desire for God-like power, and take the abandoned poor into our arms.