As we return to the book of Exodus this week in Parshat Shemot, we recall the Israelites’ descent into Egyptian slavery by the hands of a new king “who did not know Joseph.” The patriarchal family has faded off slowly over the course of more than three chapters and now, suddenly, a robust and fertile Israelite population bursts forth. This generation plunges down into servitude just as quickly as we learn of the ascent of a new Egyptian king. This Pharaoh, characterized by his fear of the increasing population and his complete indifference toward their once-respected relative, Joseph, executes a scheme to subject the Israelites to ruthless oppression. Thus begins the story of “yetziat mitzrayim,” the exodus from Egypt.
The Torah, which will permit slavery by law later on, draws a distinction between the slavery embedded within its own legal system and the slavery imposed upon the Israelites in Egypt. One mark of that distinction is in the word, “befarech,” used twice to describe how the Egyptians oppressed the Israelites. “Befarech (ruthlessly), they made life bitter for them with harsh labor at mortar and bricks and with all sorts of tasks in the field.” “Befarech,” argue the various rabbinic commentators, means backbreaking physical work, forced labor performed under the threat of violence, or work accompanied by denial of rest and meager food. “Befarech,” argues Maimonides, means endless servitude doing jobs that have no purpose. Whatever the nuance of the word, the unifying principle behind these interpretations is that Egyptian slavery was excessively cruel and degrading.
One unusual midrashic treatment of the word “befarech” renders it as “bepeh-rach,” (“with a soft mouth”), suggesting that what made the bondage so crushing was that the Israelites couldn’t even find words to describe it. Their oppression was so all-encompassing that they were reduced to silence. Unable to speak about their own suffering, they also lacked, prior to Moses, a voice from the outside that could speak on their behalf.
As Jews, we recognize the depth of this oppression not only from our sacred texts but also from our painful collective history. As Jewish Americans, we know that the origins of our country are inextricably linked to the systemic oppression of African slaves. We deplore the hideous contradiction of our country being founded upon the notion of human freedom while being built by slaves. However, as author Ron Soodalter discusses in “The Slave Next Door,” slavery still exists in our country today. Although legally sanctioned slavery in America ended in 1865, slavery itself has persisted, having become hidden from the public eye. Today, human trafficking impacts people from every race and religion. Some give over their entire life savings to come to America from impoverished countries hoping for a better future; some are sold to bosses who threaten violence if they try to leave; some are minors who are captured into the prostitution industry within 48 hours of being released from youth detention centers. Even though we do know that slaves work in agricultural labor, product manufacturing, domestic work, and prostitution, human trafficking is so insidious that we don’t know how many or which of our daily products are tainted by slave labor.
As author Michael Waltzer points out in his book, “Exodus and Revolution,” the reason an oppressive regime works is that it is somehow attractive. If it weren’t so, he argues, then it would have been much easier for the Israelites to escape from Egypt than it was. The bondage that degrades the slave also conditions him into a type of complacency about his own suffering. Hazal, our rabbinic sages, also understood the enduring harm of a spirit broken by slavery. Such utter complacency may be the most pernicious aspect of oppression, but its impact is not only upon the slave. It also impacts the society that permits slavery to exist, whether legal or illegal, whether visible or hidden.
The fact that we all buy products every day that have likely been tainted by slave labor makes us part of a society that not only permits slavery but also enables it. This realization means that, at minimum, we have an obligation to learn as much as we can about how human trafficking operates, so that we can begin to speak about it in our communities. Because the bondage of our ancestors happened “bepeh-rach,” imposing upon them a stifling silence, their suffering endured until someone else decided to speak up for them. Speaking for those who have no voice is a familiar trope in human rights work. Those of us whose fundamental rights are secure have an obligation to do so, regardless of whether that obligation is understood through our faith tradition or our commitment to the ideals of our forefathers when they wrote that every human being is endowed with the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
When we refer to the inauspicious events of the Torah that describe the enslavement of the Israelites, we call it “yetziat mitzrayim,” the “going out” or “exodus” from Egypt. Inherent in the very name of the story is its redemptive feature, i.e., that servitude ends when the Israelites finally leave Egypt. We can take faith from “yetziat mitzrayim” that today’s slavery, too, can end if we take concrete steps to eliminate it. We can do so through giving tzedakah to survivors of human trafficking through human rights organizations, through volunteering professional legal and organizing skills, through education advocacy in your synagogue, and definitely through efforts to learn and teach others about the slave-trade industry in America. As we pray the words “mibeyt avadim peditanu” (“from the house of servitude You rescued us”), let us do so with the kavannah (intention) to do all that we can as Jews and American citizens to emancipate others living in our midst who have not yet been redeemed from bondage.