Where Slavery Ends and Freedom Starts

Rabbi Jill Jacobs

“This year we are slaves; next year may we be free.”

It’s not always so clear where slavery ends and freedom starts. Did the Israelites become Pharaoh’s slaves only after he set taskmasters over them? Or did we lose our freedom when we became dependent on Egypt’s largesse? Did we become free when we crossed the sea, or only when we established a homeland of our own?

When we think about slavery, we might picture chains, cages, or beatings. It’s true that some modern-day slavery still looks like this. Often, though, the people held in forced labor in the United States today are bound by psychological chains, instead of or in addition to physical ones. A trafficked domestic worker may be afraid to run away in a country where she knows no one and does not speak the language. An agricultural worker who owes a debt to his smuggler may fear for the lives of his family back home if he escapes. Employers exert control by holding passports, promising payment, or engaging in emotional abuse.

The line between slavery and freedom is not always clearly marked by a parting sea.

The rabbis of the Talmud address this fuzzy boundary by permitting day laborers (akin to today’s hourly workers) to quit in the middle of the day. This law derives from the biblical statement, “The children of Israel are my [God’s] servants” (Leviticus 25:55), understood as forbidding servitude to anyone but God.  One contemporary legal authority, Rabbi Shmuel Wosner  comments, “if one were to say that the worker cannot change his mind… this would be a type of slavery as the employer would rule over the worker… [The Torah] eliminated any claim on the worker that borders on slavery. (Shut Shevet Halevi 7:236)

The journey from slavery to freedom may not always be clearly marked. But we commit to this journey.

To help fight slavery in our own time:

  1. Celebrate freedom with fair trade Pesach chocolate, provided through a partnership among T’ruah, Fair Trade Judaica, and Equal Exchange. This chocolate is guaranteed free of the slavery rampant in the cocoa industry.
  2. Download Pesach resources including T’ruah’s new anti-trafficking haggadah. 

Author bio: 

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, which mobilizes 1800 rabbis and our communities to protect the human rights of all people in North America, Israel, and the occupied Palestinian territories. 

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