If You Were A Slave: Empathy and Action This Pesach

I attend a lot of meetings. (Maybe you can relate.) Many are important; few are memorable. About fifteen years ago, I attended a Passover Seminar at the Los Angeles Board of Rabbis that will stay with me forever.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater discussed modern-day slavery. He invited everyone present to contemplate slavery – ancient and contemporary, Israelite and gentile – and then to sing these words as a dirge: “Avadim hayinu lepharoah bemitzrayim. Ata b’nai chorin.” The translation is: “We were slaves to Pharoah in Egypt. Now we are free.”

It’s a song we usually sing in up-tempo. We treat it as a children’s ditty. The text is a pastiche of two readings from the Hagaddah. La, la, we used to be slaves. Yai, deedle, dai, now we’re free.

By slowing it down and singing it mournfully, the meaning hit me differently. We were slaves. We, our entire people, were slaves. I looked around at my fellow escapees, and I observed a few hard-boiled rabbis crying around the table. Everyone felt the weight of the words. Everyone mourned that human beings could do this to one another.

On Passover, we taste slavery in vegetables and dipping sauces; we feel freedom in the soft pillows on which we lean. Through sensory experience and the power of story, the ancient rabbis constructed an order (seder) meant to spark inquiry. Meanings, not just matzahs, are hidden, and they can only be uncovered through feats of imagination.

The ultimate feat of imagination is set out as a requirement in Pesachim 116b: “In each generation, every person is obligated to see him or herself as personally having left slavery in Egypt.”

slaves-taken from Africa x background fresco 2Artist Nila M. Pusin based her artwork on contemporary photographs of slaves. Her artwork appears in the Jewish educational resource Next Year Free! A Modern Slavery Curriculum

Can you truly imagine being a slave? Can you imagine being treated as a beast of burden, building with bricks in the hot sun, allowed no rest and little food? Can you imagine threats against your children? Under such circumstances, can you imagine losing connection with your past and hope for your future? That is what happened to the Children of Israel in Egypt. And that is what still happens to slaves today in countries across the world, including the United States.

Can you imagine being one of approximately 36 million slaves now in bondage? Can you imagine enduring your child’s kidnapping, knowing that she is likely enslaved? Can you imagine being so poor that you feel you must “sell” one of your children to get him an education (or at least the false promise of one) and to feed the others? Can you imagine generations of debt-bondage in your family, all for a fake loan or a paltry sum your grandfather borrowed? Can you imagine coming to this country with the help of coyotes only to discover that the job they promised is a lie – and that you are a slave? Can you imagine going to a party only to be drugged, isolated, beaten, and ordered to make money as a street walker – or die?

If you can really imagine, then you are compelled to action. But what can be done?

Lately, I have immersed myself in research about human trafficking. I wanted to find out what could make a difference. The action suggestions at the end of this blog  share my best recommendations – both for Passover and throughout the year.

Research is vital for measuring effectiveness and discerning the subtle, variable “best practices” for freeing slaves. In making the recommendations that follow, I am relying on facts and metrics, which are vital to deploying our money, time, and energy to best help slaves.

But choosing and sustaining a practice depends on vision. It was one particular vision – my daughter’s – that gave my good intentions real power.

The breakthrough came when my seven-year-old, who couldn’t investigate, simply imagined. Specifically, she imagined that I could personally have a hand in freeing 100 slaves within a year. My mind could easily have dismissed her idea as naïve and absurd, but my spirit felt a quickening, a sense of rightness. Maybe it was all those years of practice at Passover seders that allowed me to see into her imagination. I made a solemn agreement with her to do it, if she would be my partner.

With this article, I am asking you join us. Imagine what we can do together – and, then, let’s do it.



    • Scroll through ideas and activities for your seder curated and organized for 2016  (in Haggadah order) from dozens of websites and organizations. Seder Starters: Expand the Telling will help to make seders more meaningful – for you and for slaves.
    • A few brief examples: add a padlock to the Seder plate, share the testimony of a freed slave, ask a fifth question (about slaves), or “give an afikoman gift that matters.
    • In the words of Kevin Bales, founder of Free the Slaves, “Stop eating and wearing and driving slavery.” Buy fair-trade goods whenever possible. Inquire into the supply chain of whatever you buy. Support good governance in the countries where you do business. Encourage investment funds to screen out companies that profit from slavery. Visit KnowTheChain.org.
    • When agri-businesses, chocolatiers, grocery chains, or mutual funds are persuaded that their consumers want slave-free products, they change the way they operate.
    • Can unfair-trade foods be considered kosher? Visit Magen Tzekek – an Ethical Certification for Kosher Food to learn about morality and kosher foods.
    • Buy Fair Trade, Kosher-for-Passover chocolate to enjoy on the Festival of Freedom. Approximately 70% of the cacao beans picked in the world are picked by slaves. If you are not eating Fair Trade, then chances are, you are eating slave trade.
About the Author
Debra Orenstein, rabbi of Congregation B'nai Israel in Emerson, NJ, is an acclaimed teacher, author, and 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. She earned a Certificate in Positive Psychology and teaches online. Visit RabbiDebra.com to learn more.
Related Topics
Related Posts