Yom Sheini, 17 AdarI 5781
Monday, 1 March 2021
Parashat Mishpatim 5776

Rabbi Sandra Kviat
5th February 2016

Without a Shadow of a Doubt

Avadim hayinu l’pharaoh b’mitzrayim - We were slaves to pharaoh in Egypt.

No seder is replete without singing this at full volume, with especial emphasis on ‘WE were slaves’. And if there’s space and time at the seder we might get to discuss ways we feel enslaved today (by phones, emails, deadlines, mortgages) or we look at modern slavery and oppression using Haggadah supplements like Tzedek’s (a collaboration with Rene Cassin and JCORE). We think, feel and discuss for a short while and then we move on in the story, dipping, singing and eating our way to ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ and final tired goodbyes. And it is a good evening, a festival that reminds us of some of the values we find important in Judaism. It makes us think about issues of freedom, both personal and communal, and of oppression and how we unintentionally participate in a system that is not fair or even plainly wrong (an example is the treatment of factory workers that makes our clothes under dangerous conditions).

But the story continues in the Torah, away from the giddy heights of the Red Sea, the thundering voice, and the Ten Commandments, and crashes into this week’s parasha. For our reading discusses slavery, but the slavery inflicted by the former Hebrew slaves onto others; On the Hebrew man who is unable to pay his debt and is therefore forced into servitude (though limited), or the impoverished father who sells his daughter into slavery (though she was destined to be more of a concubine than actual slave). It’s a hard fact to accept/swallow, that Jews kept slaves right after Egypt, [or at least that the writers of the Torah chose to discuss the institution of slavery while slavery was still fresh in the minds of the characters]. It is only eased by how the Torah highlights their rights; limiting the years of servitude to 6 years, having certain rights and protection, and if running away they should not be returned. Beneath the status as slaves there’s a sense and value of them as human beings.

Except of course for the non-Israelite slave. Did you notice her? Did you see the shadowy figure of the non-Israelite wife of the Israelite slave?

‘If his master gave him a wife and she has borne him children, the wife and children shall belong to the master and he [the husband] shall leave alone.’ (Exodus 21.4)

She has to be a non-Israelite for otherwise she could only be kept for 6 years, and since the master can keep her and her children in perpetuity she cannot be anything but a non-Israelite. She would never become part of the family as the young female Israelite slave would, who was expected to either marry the master or his sons and if none of this happened to be let free. The non-Israelite slave was property, could be mated to breed more slaves, could not chose her husband or reject him for that matter. She could even lose her children if the master decided it.

And here lies my dismay, here is my discomfort. As modern people we find it highly problematic that slavery is acceptable at all, but I’ve always been proud that in the Torah the slavery described was not like the cruelty of Egyptian or Greek or recent African slavery. For in the Torah there was a way out, an end to the servitude not based on the whims of the owner, but on law. That’s why the shadowy figure of the non-Israelite wife leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.

And she still exists today, in the shadows. The Global Slavery Index ·is the flagship report produced by the Walk Free Foundation, a global organisation dedicated to ending modern slavery. The latest report released in 2014 estimates that there are 35.8 million slaves in the world today.

In the UK they estimate that 8300 people are enslaved. ‘According to government records, the most prominent form of modern slavery identified in the United Kingdom (UK) is trafficking of foreign nationals and UK citizens for commercial sexual exploitation and forced labour, which affects both adults and children’ .

Did you know that meat products and paving blocks are products known to be using modern slavery?

The shadow of slavery still hang over us; and not just in the sex industry, but amongst the people who clean our offices or homes, or our children’s nurseries, our parents or grandparents nursing home, and in the food we eat. Admittedly the shadow in the UK ·is not too deep, but more and more stories are coming to light every day. And though the shadow isn’t deep, it is still there. We know that modern slavery exists, not just out there in faraway countries where we have no control or influence, but also right here in our cities, perhaps even on our doorstep or in our workplace.

We have no issues with questioning the Torah for its lack of denunciation of slavery. But do we ask the same question of our own lives, the places where we have some influence? I know my cleaner is a legal immigrant (she’s Polish), we pay her the London Living Wage, she has a bank account, a passport, a car, and a flat, and she’s getting an education. But I have no idea about the people working in my son’s nursery, or who cleans my grandmother in law’s building, or who does the dishes in my favourite take away. There are slaves working in car washes, in factories, in nail bars, and in the catering industry in this country. We can’t change the whole world, but we can ask questions of those who are near to us. So next time I’m picking up my son, I will ask the nursery staff about who cleans up after our children. Do you know the situation of those who clean your home/office/nursery/nursing home/car? The least we can do is look for the shadows where we live and work. 

Spotting the sign are not easy, but the Home Office and the NSPCC have made a website to help anyone suspecting a case of modern slavery or who would like more information.

And come Pesach, in a few months time, when we sing Avadim Hayinu, we can talk about slavery and freedom without a shadow of a doubt of some parts of our own lives.