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We, Ourselves, Were Slaves—Freeing Today’s Captives

Torah Talk on Parshat Bo 5780

This week our people gets out of Egypt—or, to be more accurate, we chant the Torah portion of Bo which includes the description of the Exodus from Egyptian slavery and the establishment of the rites and rituals of the observance of the Passover.

The build up to this week’s parshah has been steady and dramatic. Plague has followed plague—ten of them, of course—rising in severity as the One God overcomes the long roster of Egyptian gods and idols and frees the people of Israel from their long night of oppression and slavery. Finally, in Bo our ancestors become a free people.

Since we are now liberated you might expect us to immediately cast off the memory of oppression and enslavement, to reject our history of degradation, to move on to new and better things. Oddly, God through Moses commands us to do quite the opposite—to remember the slavery, and how we were freed only by God’s great acts. And from this point on we are reminded repeatedly in the Torah to remember those in our own society who are oppressed, and to help them, because after all “we, ourselves, were slaves” in the land of Egypt. “You were strangers in a strange land,” we tell ourselves repeatedly in the Torah. Therefore, recalling our degradation, we must help the oppressed and protect the strangers in our own land.

I can think of no other people or nation that spends so much effort remembering how humble its origins were. Unlike many other national myths, we Jews do not highlight our ancient and sacred pedigree, or our divine origin. Instead we remind ourselves, again and again, that we are the descendants of slaves who had nothing to call their own, not even their own bodies.

Even on holidays that have nothing to do with the Exodus or freedom we incorporate our memory of slavery and liberation. Every Kiddush on every single Shabbat includes the phrase that we are celebrating zecher l’tzi’at Mitzrayim, “recalling the Exodus from Egyptian slavery.”

The message is powerful. We are to recall the fact of our own oppression so that we will identify with those in our world today who need our help. The sedrah of Bo teaches us that we must seek always to redeem the world through our own actions. Our connection is with the lowly, and our efforts to heal the world come from the knowledge that we have exactly that same background.

It’s a profound lesson in humility that leads directly to charity, tzedakah, and the promulgation of righteousness in the world. Even in challenging times—perhaps especially in challenging times—we must remember those who are oppressed, and who have less than we do. And no matter how much we rise in the world, no matter how influential or powerful our people may be, or our Jewish nation may become, we are always to identify with those who have less and need our help.

Today there are still slaves in the world—not metaphoric slaves, actual human beings subjugated by others. January 2020 is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. As the US presidential proclamation issued December 31st stated, “Human trafficking erodes personal dignity and destroys the moral fabric of society. It is an affront to humanity that tragically reaches all parts of the world, including communities across our Nation. Each day, in cities, suburbs, rural areas, and tribal lands, people of every age, gender, race, religion, and nationality are devastated by this grave offense. During National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, we reaffirm our unwavering commitment to eradicate this horrific injustice… In all its forms, human trafficking is an intolerable blight on any society dedicated to freedom, individual rights, and the rule of law.”

The current estimate is that between 25 and 45 million people—25 to 45 million!—exist in some form of slavery today. These include children and adults forced to perform slave labor, women and men coerced into prostitution or serial rape in harems, children forced to become soldiers—the film “Beasts of No Nation” highlighted their plight—debt bondage, women sold into forced marriages, human trafficking, and many other forms of slavery. There are countries where as much as 4% of the population is composed of slaves. Five countries have more than a million people in slavery right now.

On this week when the Torah teaches us of our great liberation, I urge you to go to and explore ways in which you can support Parshat Bo’s great message and so make a difference for freedom.

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