Slave Pains

One who calls another a slave should be ostracized
— BT Kiddushin 28b

Soon we will sit at our Seder tables taking the imaginative journey from freedom to slavery. Although we are commanded to relive this experience, we all know that whatever we say and do will only be a poor simulation of what our ancestors suffered. Even the joy of freedom will be hard to muster since it is something we take for granted today. One way to put ourselves into the mindset of the slave is to compare the Egyptian treatment of us as slaves to the institution of slavery and its limits in the Hebrew Bible.
Slavery was permitted in the days of the Hebrew Bible and Talmud but not regarded as a desideratum in Jewish law. It was seen as an inevitability of its day that needed strict guidelines since the exertion of power over another human being is never to be taken lightly. Individuals could sell themselves into slavery to pay off debt. Others were captives of war. It would be more accurate to call an "eved" an indentured servant than a slave, given our associations with slavery in the past centuries. This kind of barbaric forced work at the risk of death is completely forbidden in Jewish law and punishable by death: "He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death." (Exodus 21:16)
The following verses illustrate some of the Jewish restrictions on power in this relationship that are the exact opposite of the outcry described by our ancestors at the hands of a cruel and hard-hearted Pharaoh:

  • "If a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies at his hand, he shall be punished." (Exodus 21:20)
  • "If a man strikes the eye of his male or female slave, and destroys it, he shall let him go free on account of his eye. And if he knocks out a tooth of his male or female slave, he shall let him go free on account of his tooth." (Exodus 21:26-27) 
  • "He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death." (Exodus 21:12)
  • "Six days you are to do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female slave, as well as your stranger, may refresh themselves. (Exodus 23:12) 
  • "Now if a man lies carnally with a woman who is a slave acquired for another man, but who has in no way been redeemed nor given her freedom, there shall be punishment..."(Leviticus 19:20) 
  • "You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you." (Deuteronomy 23:15) 
  • "If a countryman of yours becomes so poor with regard to you that he sells himself to you, you shall not subject him to a slave's service. He shall be with you as a hired man, as if he were a sojourner; he shall serve with you until the year of jubilee. He shall then go out from you, he and his sons with him, and shall go back to his family, that he may return to the property of his forefathers. For they are My servants whom I brought out from the land of Egypt; they are not to be sold in a slave sale. You shall not rule over him with severity, but are to revere your God." (Leviticus 25:39-43) 
  • "If you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve for six years; but on the seventh he shall go out as a free man without payment." (Exodus 21:2)
  • "Do not slander a slave to his master or he will curse you and you will be found guilty." (Proverbs 30:10) 
  • "He who pampers his slave from childhood will in the end find him to be a son." (Proverbs 29:21) 

Finally, the Talmudic statement above, says it all. We don't even use the word "slave" lightly and ostracize someone who does for denying the freedom of agency that we believe is inherent in all human beings regardless of status. Maimonides, in his "Laws of Indentured Servants" helps us understand how to negotiate the tensions of having too much power over another. He contends that one can deal with a slave harshly yet,

...although this is the law, the way of the pious and the wise is to be compassionate and to pursue justice, not to overburden or oppress a servant. One must provide for them from every dish and every drink. The early sages would give their servants from every dish on their table. They would feed their animals and their servants before sitting to their own meals...So, too, you should not denigrate a servant, neither physically nor verbally. The Torah made him your servant to do work, not to be disgraced. Do not treat him with constant verbal abuse and anger, rather speak to him pleasantly and listen to his complaints. Such were the good ways in which Job took pride when he said, "Did I ever despise the judgment of my servant and my maid when they argued with me? Did not my Maker make him, too, in the belly; did not the same One form us both in the womb?"

The integrity of the human being is always what ultimately matters. The same God made us all. We should feel uncomfortable that slavery appears in the Torah at all. And every time we fail to use our own human agency to prevent injustice, we, too minimize that godliness in ourselves and others. We opt into another form of slavery when we compromise our freedom, as Harriet Tubman so beautifully said, "I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves."
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Passover. May it be a time of true freedom.

Race and Restlessness

What we need is restlessness, a constant awareness of the monstrosity of injustice.
— Rabbi A.J Heschel

It's hard to think of others when our own people are under siege and yet, there is a universe of struggle going on right now about which we cannot be willfully blind. Migrants and refugees wander across Europe seeking temporary homes and facing the bleak reality that a future of uncertainty may be their only certainty right now. And on top of it all, winter is coming, which makes all homelessness colder, harder and harsher.

When we look internally at the troubles in this country, it is easy to get distracted by presidential campaigns and debates and not look beyond to the deep problems of gun control, race and financial and social inequalities that have plagued this country in recent years. 

We have just opened the book of Genesis in the Torah cycle, and the first eleven chapters of the book that we covered this past two weeks signal a message that must be internalized. The story of humankind in its broadest sense dominates our sacred text. We were born into a much larger community than our own. Our universal story precedes our particularistic story. We must be the stewards of the planet, caring and nurturing the expansive garden we were put into in our primordial story. We are partners in a holy covenant but have perhaps forgotten our part of the deal.

Specifically, in the Torah reading of Noah, we encounter this boat-builder's descendants and a curious story that has been interpreted in ways that has been deforming and devastating. In these large stories of world-building and destruction, we find a small and intimate account of Noah falling asleep drunk and naked in his tent. His grandson Canaan finds him in the tent and reports it gleefully to his brothers. His brothers take the high road and cover their father, making sure not to turn in his direction when doing so. "When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what his youngest son had done to him, he said, 'Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.' He also said, 'Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem. May God extend the territory of Japheth; may Japheth live in the tents of Shem, and may Canaan be his slave,'" [9:24-27].

The curse of Canaan was read in ancient midrashim as possibly referring to those of African descent. It was taken more literally in some Christian circles as a defense of slavery as a biblical mandate, suggesting that this brutal behavior was encoded into the way human hierarchies must always be. And we have not yet, thousands of years later, fully rid ourselves of this plague.

In 1963, at the opening address at the National Conference on Religion and Race, Rabbi A.J. Heschel told the audience that racism is "an eye disease, a cancer of the soul." Later, this essay was collected in an anthology called The Insecurity of Freedom: the essay is entitled "Religion and Race." Here are his words:

Religion and race. How can the two be uttered together? To act in the spirit of religion is to unite what lies apart, to remember that humanity as a whole is God's beloved child. To act in the spirit of race is to sunder, to slash, to dismember the flesh of living humanity. Is this the way to honor a child: to torture his child? How can we hear the word "race" and feel no self-reproach?

Decades later, we encounter Ta-Nahisi Coates' heartbreaking letter to his 15-year old son about being black in America - Between the World and Me. It's painful reading. Coates tries to update the letter James Baldwin wrote to his 15-year old nephew. Following this "tradition," I have written a letter on being white and Jewish to my 14-year-old daughter on race in America and our Jewish responsibility for all of humanity straight from Genesis. It seems at times if for every step forward on matters of race in America, we take long steps back.

 It's time to restore a very delicate equilibrium that has gone awry. We may never get back to the Garden of Eden, but in a broken world, we still need to aspire to the wholeness we once had. 

Shabbat Shalom