Joshua Hammerman
Rabbi, award winning journalist, author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi"
Featured Post

Four Hundred Years a Slave

Recent comments by Israel's deputy religious services minister show we have yet to learn the moral lessons of Egypt

Deputy religious services minister Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan‘s attitude regarding the superiority of Jewish souls is, unfortunately, not so rare among certain Jewish groups, in Israel and elsewhere.  But that does not make it right.

But neither is it right for the rest of us to have become so numb to this evil, far too accepting of outright racism in the name of some tribal compulsion that demands that we hush up about anything that might make us appear disloyal to any Israeli leader. 

Last week I saw the highly acclaimed film, “Twelve Years a Slave,” Solomon Northup’s searing account of his twelve years in southern chains.  In “Schindler’s List” fashion, this movie pulls no punches in showing how America’s “peculiar institution” corrupted everything in its wake.  No one was immune to this plague.  Even the victims became numb to the suffering of others while they struggled to maintain their humanity.  One leaves this film wondering aloud whether the American experiment was worth starting at all, given the compromises that had to be made regarding slavery right from the outset.  Did the ends of having a nation freed of British rule justify the means, perpetuating this abhorrence of rendering human beings subhuman?

Some movies leave you hanging.  In one excruciating scene, as the main character literally is left hanging, everyone goes about their lives as if nothing is going on, as if a man isn’t writhing in pain just in front of them (you can read it here, scrolling down to p.115).  It is as powerful an indictment of slavery as you will ever see.  And as such, it is an indictment against America itself.  Are there actually people who still wave the Confederate flag proudly?  Are there actually people who look nostalgically back to the yore of Dixie?  Was this exemplary country actually responsible for that crime against humanity? 

We need to look our failings squarely in the eye. 

Jews were slaves in Egypt, according to tradition, for four hundred years (though there is inconsistency in the Torah as to the exact duration).  That’s a lot more than twelve.  And in that time, we picked up some bad habits.  In this week’s portion, the Israelites gain their freedom at last, but not without moral dilemmas of their own – Moses and God are both implicated in some questionable acts, such as deceiving Pharaoh, the despoiling of the Egyptians and the mass carnage at the Red Sea. Four hundred years of slavery sensitized us to the plight of the other, but didn’t immunize from the toxicity of power.

And if you needed any proof, just listen to Ben-Dahan.

You can read Solomon Northup’s entire book online.  Here is a brief excerpt, which brings me to tears just to cut/paste it.  Who among us can call ourselves a civilized human being and not be overcome by shame?

Finally, he ceased whipping from mere exhaustion, and ordered Phebe to bring a bucket of salt and water. After washing her thoroughly with this, I was told to take her to her cabin. Untying the ropes, I raised her in my arms. She was unable to stand, and as her head rested on my shoulder, she repeated many times, in a faint voice scarcely perceptible, “Oh, Platt-oh, Platt!” but nothing further. Her dress was replaced, but it clung to her back, and was soon stiff with blood. We laid her on some boards in the hut, where she remained a long time, with eyes closed and groaning in agony. At night Phebe applied melted tallow to her wounds, and so far as we were able, all endeavored to assist and console her. Day after day she lay in her cabin upon her face, the sores preventing her resting in any other position.


A blessed thing it would have been for her-days and weeks and months of misery it would have saved her-had she never lifted up her head in life again. Indeed, from that time forward she was not what she had been. The burden of a deep melancholy weighed heavily on her spirits. She no longer moved with that buoyant and elastic step-there was not that mirthful sparkle in her eyes that formerly distinguished her. The bounding vigor-the sprightly, laughter-loving spirit of her youth, were gone. She fell into a mournful and desponding mood, and often times would start up in her sleep, and with raised hands, plead for mercy. She became more silent than she was, toiling all day in our midst, not uttering a word. A care-worn, pitiful expression settled on her face, and it was her humor now to weep, rather than rejoice. If ever there was a broken heart- one crushed and blighted by the rude grasp of suffering misfortune-it was Patsey’s.


She had been reared no better than her master’s beast-looked upon merely as a valuable and handsome animal-and consequently possessed but a limited amount of knowledge. And yet a faint light cast its rays over her intellect, so that it was not wholly dark. She had a dim perception of God and of eternity, and a still more dim perception of a Saviour who had died even for such as her. She entertained but confused notions of a future life-not comprehending the distinction between the corporeal and spiritual existence. Happiness, in her mind, was exemption from stripes-from labor-from the cruelty of masters and overseers. Her idea of the joy of heaven was simply rest, and is fully expressed in these of a melancholy bard:


 I ask no paradise on high, 

 With cares on earth oppressed, 

 The only heaven for which I sigh, 

 Is rest, eternal rest.

We Jews have lots to teach the world about how to live by a moral code that stresses that all humans are created in God’s image.  But before we teach the world, we need to teach ourselves.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is why we are here.

About the Author
Award-winning journalist, father, husband, son, friend, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and rabbi of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Author of Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi – Wisdom for Untethered Times and the upcoming book, "Embracing Auschwitz: Forging a Vibrant, Life-Affirming Judaism that Takes the Holocaust Seriously." Rabbi Hammerman was a winner of the Simon Rockower award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism, for his 2008 columns on the Bernard Madoff case, which appeared first on his blog and then were discussed widely in the media. In 2019, he received first-prize from the Religion News Association, for excellence in commentary. Among his many published personal essays are several written for the New York Times Magazine and Washington Post. He has been featured as's Conservative representative in its "Ask the Rabbi" series and as "The Jewish Ethicist," fielding questions on the New York Jewish Week's website. Rabbi Hammerman is an avid fan of the Red Sox, Patriots and all things Boston; he also loves a good, Israeli hummus. He is an active alum of Brown University, often conducting alumni interviews of prospective students. He lives in Stamford with his wife, Dr. Mara Hammerman, a psychologist. They have two grown children, Ethan and Daniel, along with Chloe, Casey and Cassidy, three standard poodles. Contact Rabbi Hammerman: (203) 322-6901 x 307
Related Topics
Related Posts