The journey of the Seder takes us me’avdut lecherut, ‘from slavery to freedom’. ‘I want people to leave my Seder praying with their feet’, said Rabbi Robyn Ashworth-Stein on radio 4’s Beyond Belief yesterday, referring to Abraham Joshua Heschel’s famous comment that in marching with Rev Martin Luther Kind at Selma, Alabama, he was ‘praying with his legs’. Just as thousands of years ago in the Exodus from Egypt, so today we remain travellers on the journey towards freedom, for ourselves and everyone.
The destination is redemption, the realisation of a vision of justice and harmony in which each person, every people, even the land, plants and animals, have their fair and necessary place. That is why the Haggadah narrative closes with the blessing Ga’al Yisrael, thanking God, ‘the redeemer of Israel’ – and the world.
But the story begins at the opposite pole, with slavery. I hope the following materials, beginning with the Bible and ending with poignant contemporary testimony, will be helpful in preparing for the Seder.
In the Torah
The Hebrew for ‘slave’ is eved. Hence avadim hayinu lePharaoh beMitzrayim, ‘we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt’.
Slavery is avodah, as in the verse, vayei’anchu Bnie Yisrael min ha’avodah, ‘the Children of Israel groaned beneath the burden of slavery’.
The verb for enslaving another person derives from the same root, as in vaya’avidu Mitzrayim et Benei Yisrael bepharech, ‘The Egyptians enslaved the Children of Israel with hard labour’.
All these references are included in the Haggadah. But they aren’t the only meanings derived from the root ‘avad’.
Human beings are avadai, ‘My servants,’ says God, and therefore no one else’s. The verb avad means ‘to work’, and also to serve, especially God and God’s sacred ideals. We are instructed le’ovdo bechol levavchem, ‘to serve God with all our hearts’, which the rabbis interpret to mean the heart’s service of prayer.
To reduce another person to abject slavery is therefore to crush his or her inherent dignity as a being created in God’s image and for God’s service and to misuse their capacity for dignified work and service for exploitative and abusive ends. It is a crime against the very nature of humanity, God and creation.
What is slavery today?
In every sphere of existence, including our own inner life, we may become, be turned into, or turn ourselves into, slaves. As the Ba’al Shem Tov taught:
Every person is a world in miniature. In it are Moses, Aaron and Egypt.
Abraham Twerski opens his edition of the Haggadah with testimony from a lifetime’s work in striving to help people with addictions. He quotes a former patient:
I was a slave to drugs, and there has never been so demanding and inconsiderate a taskmaster, so absolute an enslavement, as addiction to chemicals. I had no choice whether to use them or not. I did things in my addiction that I swore I would never do, because a slave must do as he is told…I know what it means to be a slave, and I know what it means to be free.’ From Bondage to Freedom: Rabbi Abraham Twerski, p. 10
A challenging question at the Seder is ‘To what are we ourselves enslaved?’ Are we, individually or collectively, slaves to social media, iphones and email, success, the image we want others to have of us, the concept that ‘progress’ is measured overwhelmingly in economic ‘growth’? Our inner journey to freedom, including the two steps back we all often take, probably remains untold, even to ourselves…
Tyranny and cruelty survive and persist within the supposedly harmonious sphere of the home. Here is an unusual example, from Wag, ‘The Mag for Dog Lovers’:
The Freedom Project initiative helps dog-owners fleeing domestic abuse by providing a safe, temporary home for their dogs. (Abusers often abuse pets as well.) Gemma, who’d lived in a physically and mentally abusive relationship for three years, testified: ‘I would never have left home without my dogs. I managed to get them out of there, but I couldn’t take them into the refuge with me….’
Most painfully, love itself, more often of course for children than animals, can prevent victims of violence from escaping into freedom…
Slavery at Work
The slave-trade may long have been abolished across most of the world. Yet slavery, like many evil spirits, takes different forms. It is often far less distant than we may like to think. We may even be – unwittingly – funding it:
A tomato purchased in the United States between November and May was most likely picked by a worker in Florida. On this night, we recall the numerous cases of modern slavery and other worker exploitation that occurred in the Florida tomato industry, which centers on the town of Immokalee, as recently as 2010. Together with students, secular human rights activists, and religious groups like T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, Immokalee workers have convinced 14 major corporations, such as McDonald’s and Walmart, to join the Fair Food Program, a historic partnership between workers, growers, and corporations. truah.org
HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society – for supporting which the synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, suffered a vile and murderous attack last October) includes the following account in its Haggadah, downloadable on line.
Sam (Yamin) Yingichay grew up in Myanmar as one of an estimated 168 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 engaged in child labour around the world. Forced into constructing roads and living with an abusive stepfather, at 14 Yamin escaped and began to search for her birth father. Eventually she met a man claiming to know her father and followed him to Thailand, where she was once again sold into hard labour…
See hias.org for the hopeful end to her story.
The Mishnah teaches that we matchil bignai umesayyem beshevach, ‘begin with shame and conclude with praise’. The very existence of slavery was and is a shame and disgrace to the humanity of each and every one of us. Let us work for a world in which we can travel together to a place where we can all in our own way praise and appreciate the wonder of life.
For tomorrow: the subject of Freedom….