When Your Child Speaks: Passover, Kids, and Slavery

The following is a pop quiz on Jewish priorities. Take it yourself or, better yet (for reasons I will explain below), take it with someone under the age of 18.

What commandment is emphasized through repetition more than any other? According to rabbinic count (Baba Metzia 59b), the Torah prohibits oppressing a stranger at least 36 separate times “because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Which holiday is celebrated by more Jews than any other? It’s not Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. Though the High Holidays bring large crowds to synagogue, Passover is celebrated by greater numbers of Jews. More than 90% of Jews participate in Seders most years. In a recent Pew study, 70% of American Jews attended a Seder in the prior year. Among Jews married to another Jew, the figure was 91%. 42% of those who identify as “Jews of no religion” said they attended a Seder in the prior year.

What is our most influential Jewish story? The stories of Creation (including Shabbat) and of the Giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai are essential narratives, but the master story that shaped and continues to shape Jewish identity is: “We were slaves in Egypt, and God took us out with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” Morning and evening in both weekday and Sabbath prayers, we describe the terrible tyranny of slavery and reenact our relief and salvation at the Red Sea. The story of the Exodus defines us as a people and has also inspired liberation movements around the world over the course of centuries.

The other “top contenders” mentioned above for the title of “master Jewish narrative” – Creation/Sabbath and Receiving the Torah – significantly include the Exodus. At Mt. Sinai, God’s first of the ten dibrot (sayings) is “I am Adonai your God who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slaves.” The commandment to observe Shabbat is connected to our liberation: “The seventh day is a Sabbath unto Adonai your God. On it you shall not do any work – neither you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your man-servant, nor your woman-servant, nor your ox, nor your donkey, nor any of your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates; that your man-servant and your woman-servant may rest as you do.” (Deut. 5:13). In the Friday night Kiddush, we name Shabbat both a “memorial (zicaron) to Creation” and a “reminder (zecher) of the Exodus from Egypt.”

This brief quiz proves what is intuitively felt, but not always consciously known, by Jews: that there is an essential, unseverable connection between Jews and freedom. It’s impossible to tell the story of the Jews without telling of our enslavement, our liberation, and in response to those experiences, our duty to protect the vulnerable.

By latest count, there are approximately 42 million slaves in the world. It’s a shocking number – up significantly since the last estimates, now that the International Labour Organization and others are counting forced marriage as a form of slavery. Although slavery is not legal anywhere, it is perpetrated everywhere, including in the United States and Israel. The Catholic Church has made a commitment to end all forms of slavery by 2030. The United Nations has taken on the same mission and deadline as one of its goals for sustainable development.

The Jewish community, whose narratives, laws, and holidays inspired the Western value of freedom as we know it, has done less than many of our neighbors. Until now.

The present moment is auspicious. Hundreds of nations and a church of over a billion people have set a deadline to end slavery that is just 12 years away. There are many reasons why this audacious goal is in sight: improved technology and communications, consumer awareness of supply chains, Fair Trade options, activist investors, community organizing, better laws and policing, empowerment of former slaves, journalism that exposes traffickers. But the main factor is will. Slavery can be eliminated in our lifetime. Whether or not it will be is up to us, based on how we vote and lobby, what we buy, and which governmental programs and charities we fund.

A big part of the Passover Seder is teaching our children, telling the story that they may not yet know – or not know as fully as we do. Yet, the biggest moments of discovery don’t come from adult answers, but from children’s questions and challenges. (Think of the Four Sons.) That’s why I began this column by inviting you to invite a young person into the discussion.

On the Seder night, the Rabbinic strategy is: spark curiosity, encourage inquiry, and invite everyone – especially children – to speak. The last word does not rest with the Haggadah. It lives around the table in the mouth of any child or adult who is moved to interpret, wonder, argue, imagine, or suggest.

With almost 900 protests this past weekend, we saw a stunning example of what children can add to a conversation. Learning and growth happen not just when we teach young people, but when we listen to them and encourage them to take the lead.

The Torah describes that “in time to come” (Deut. 6:20), parents will need to speak (Hebrew root: a.m.r.) the message and history of Passover to children who are born into freedom. Interestingly, this same Hebrew root is used to introduce children’s questions about Passover, along with the root sh.a.l., meaning “ask.” Exodus 12:26 describes a future time when children will state (a.m.r.) their questions about Passover. Children are not just “straight men” setting us up for our perfect one-liners. As every parent can tell you, children’s questions can contain whole worlds – and not just of inquiry, but of instruction. One way older generations can pass on a better world is to listen expansively and minutely to the Torah that the younger generation has to offer.

Some of my greatest teachers on the subject of human trafficking have been children. I was inspired to do my part for today’s slaves because my daughter, at age 7, challenged a modest goal I had originally set. As we reviewed our spiritual intentions during the High Holiday season five years ago, I stated my goal to help free 18 slaves. She was unimpressed. “Why 18? Why not 100?” I was convicted by her words. 18 might seem “manageable” for me, but the point is that slavery is chaotic, violent, lawless and completely unmangageable for the people who suffer it. Why not aim for a more disruptive and ambitious goal?

We have tolerated slavery until now, but the world is at a tipping point. A united (and uniting) effort by the Jewish community can free millions of people – and it will require relatively simple changes and modest contributions. If individual Jews do our part to eradicate slavery, it will begin with raising this issue at our Seders – and continue from there. Imagine if, when you opened the door for Elijah, a family of slaves stood on your doorstep. You would never hand them back to their captors. You would not be able to look them in the eyes and then turn your back on them. Slavery persists because it is hidden from us. Supply chains are deliberately “murky.” We indirectly benefit from a crime that we do not endorse. Once we look the reality of slavery in the face, I believe that each of us will take action to end it.

  • To learn what you can doin 10 hours, 10 minutes or even 10 seconds – to remember and rescue slaves this Passover, download Passover Prep at www.FreeTheSlaves.net/Judaism.

A short time after my holiday discussion with my daughter, I read an article in the New Jersey Jewish Standard about Jessica Baer, then 11. She saw a single presentation about modern slavery at Jewish summer camp and proceeded to free 30 child slaves in Ghana before her Bat Mitzvah. I photocopied the article and wrote above the headline in sharpie (for myself and others to see): “This is what a child did. What can you do?” (Since Lois Goldrich wrote that article in 2013, the Baer family has rescued dozens more children and helped build a school for them. Visit www.btcte.org to learn more.)

Emmett and Hannah Mathilda Weisz, my children, are pictured above. This is a picture from five years ago, when they first started raising money to free slaves. The sign reads: “Jews Freeing Slaves.”

A 9-year-old named Vivienne Harr saw a photograph of two child slaves at a quarry, carrying enormous slabs of rock on their backs down a steep hill. She noticed that they wore torn clothes and ill-fitting shoes. She also noticed that they were holding hands. Vivienne saw their humanity and wanted them to be able to play. She told her parents, “Compassion without action is not compassion.”

Vivienne decided to run a lemonade stand to raise money for the cause of child slaves. The story might have ended there, with a small donation to a worthy cause, except that Vivienne ran that lemonade stand every day, rain or shine, for an entire year. Adults were inspired. She got press coverage. She gave a TED Talk and attended the Global Forum. Within months, she raised over $100,000. Later, she bottled her Fair Trade Make-a-Stand Lemon-aid and sold it in stores, donating all the proceeds. Vivienne’s first publication is a children’s picture book about her journey in helping others. The title says it all: When Life Gives You Lemons, Change the World. This year, I gave that book as an Afikomen prize to the youngest students in my Hebrew School. I look forward to being amazed at what they, too, can accomplish.

About a month ago, I served as a scholar-in-residence at Kehilla synagogue in North Carolina and spoke to Hebrew School students about “Modern Slavery and Our Jewish Problem.” I showed a 4-minute film, available on Youtube, called Building Freedom Brick By Brick. It features a community of people in Kukdaha, India who were enslaved, under brutal and violent conditions, to make bricks. They were terrorized and didn’t see a way out until field workers from Free The Slaves found them, advocated for them, and supported them in breaking free. As their story unfolds on screen, we see them making bricks. It’s hard labor under a brutally hot sun. Gradually, we realize that they are making those bricks of their own free will. Free the Slaves helped them buy their own kiln, and they now do in freedom, with smiles on their faces, what they used to do in misery, under threat of beatings and death. One freed woman declares: “Having our own brick kiln makes us happy. And if more freed people work here, I’ll be even happier.”

After screening the film, I asked the children: “What connections do you see between this film and Passover?” Their replies were varied: “They were slaves, just like us.” “They were whipped and they cried.” “We became free, and so did they.” “They are able to be happy now that they are free.” One adult, an elder imparting an important detail of history, added, “They made bricks as slaves, and we did, too.” The children gasped in recognition. Pharaoh forced us to make bricks. It is mind-boggling that the work our people did as slaves in the 13th century BCE is still imposed on human beings in the 21st century CE.

Then a young man named Asa spoke up and changed my view of a film that I had watched at least half a dozen times. “Moses was an outsider. We needed someone to come from the outside to help us become free. Now, we have to be the Moses for them.”

“When your child asks you in the time to come, saying: ‘What are all the testimonies and the statutes and the ordinances, which Adonai our God commanded you?’” (Deut. 6:20), by all means give the full Biblical answer. Add the wisdom of the Haggadah and all the commentaries you read and invent. “The more you elaborate on the Passover story, of course this is to be praised.” But before the kids get too tired, bored, or intimidated, take a breath. Pause. Ask what may be one of the most important questions that the elder generation can direct to children: “So, what do you think?”

In fact, don’t wait until some future time to ask. Start now, with what is at hand. Share this column with a child or teen and follow where they lead.

About the Author
Debra Orenstein, rabbi of Congregation B'nai Israel in Emerson, NJ, is an acclaimed scholar-in-residence. She is editor of Lifecycles 1:Jewish Women on Life Passages and Personal Milestones and Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life (Jewish Lights). A seventh generation rabbi, she was in the first rabbinical class at The Jewish Theological Seminary to include women.
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