Q&A : Slavery Today – March 2010 – “Jewish Life” magazine
Does slavery still exist today?
What is slavery really about? It is about taking people’s freedom away and not respecting their human rights. And there are major human rights abuses taking place in different parts of the world. Zimbabwe is still enslaved, despite the fact that there is a government of national unity. And as well as general human rights abuses taking place, there are many cases of literal slavery, like in the Sudan and Darfur. Each different experience becomes a paradigm for a tyrant who abuses his people, and crushes their dignity and their basic rights.
If Hashem freed us out of Egypt, why then does slavery still exist?
Each of these experiences, as well as Pesach, our own national experience, teaches us that tyranny and oppression is part of the human condition. An ugly, immoral, painful part of reality is that human beings oppress each other, and in essence, the festival of Pesach is Hashem’s repudiation of that. He is saying that He wants people to be free, and so in that particular instance in history Hashem intervened directly to free His people, which then becomes symbolic of His condemnation of tyranny.
Can you give a specific example of this symbolism in the Pesach story?
When Moshe Rabbeinu comes to Pharaoh, his staff is turned into a snake. The Midrash says that the message to Pharaoh was that he was being as devious as a snake in his role as a king, as a tyrant. The symbolism of the snake, which represents evil and deviousness, is juxtaposed with the staff, which is straight, and represents justice, doing the right thing. It is about the defence of the vulnerable and even using force if necessary to free people from brutality. That is what Hashem did. He used force, in the form of the ten plagues, to protect the people from the brutality of Egypt.
If Pesach is about Hashem’s statement against oppression, can or would Hashem ever free a nation today?
Pesach teaches us that Hashem’s interaction with the world is not restricted to His creation of the world, but that He interacts with human history. So when communism collapsed and the Berlin wall fell, for example, that was G-d’s hand guiding history. Hashem has helped the State of Israel through all of its wars, sometimes in the face of overwhelming odds against Israel. Hashem guides history and in Egypt it was obvious. But part of the message of Pesach is to see G-d’s hand throughout history even when it might be less obvious.
Is this just on a large scale event like, using your example, the fall of communism or the Middle East conflict?
This is not only true in human history, but in our daily life as well. That is why the Torah identifies G-d both as the creator of the world, and as the One who took us out of Egypt. On the one hand, we experience G-d in the way that He created the world and the magnificent perfection of that. And on the other hand, we feel G-d’s presence and interact with Him in the day-to-day affairs of our lives.
Is that why we remember the Exodus every day?
Yes, because it is about faith, what we call in Hebrew ‘bitachon’. This is about the fact that G-d is not just a Being that creates the world and then, so to speak, walks away from His very creation and leaves it to its own devices. Rather, Hashem is intimately involved with everything that happens. Trust in G-d means that we know that He is aware of everything that takes place in the world, and that He is guiding everything that happens from behind the scenes.
Is slavery relevant only then to societies which are not free? Where is the relevance for those of us who are privileged to belong to a democratic, free society?
Hashem has blessed us to live in a free democracy – and this is a blessing, because if you look over history, not many generations of Jews merited living in a society that respected their right to serve Hashem. But even within a free democracy we have to grapple with the issue of slavery. In fact, everyone does, because there is a concept of personal slavery.
What is personal slavery?
Personal slavery is when someone is enslaved by something in his own context. It can be an addiction – to something as common as smoking or even drugs. Or a more subtle form of enslavement – to a certain way of thinking, like looking at the world from a perspective that is not in line with Torah philosophy, because the Torah teaches us to see the world in absolute truth and clarity. Or it can be enslavement to habit, to desire, to circumstance – there are so any types of modern personal slaveries. Tragic stories where people allow their physical desires to destroy their lives. It can be the physical desire of eating, or relating to sexuality – any area of life where the physical desire dominates a person. So that the desire is driving the person, and not the other way around, the way it should be.
All of these enslavements are so common – is it because we live in a world so full of temptation?
It is because we live in a world where the core value system is one of self-gratification and instant satisfaction. The culture propounded by the media is one of physical pleasure and material riches. That these are everybody’s entitlement, and paramount to life. A person can be enslaved by their very ambition, their drive for more in life, to the point that they cannot even enjoy what they do have.
So it is largely about gratitude as well…
Rav Yosef Yehuda Leib Bloch, the Telz Rosh Yeshiva, wrote that the tragedy of the human condition is that people often want what they don’t have, and they obsess so much with what they want that they can’t enjoy what they do have. So yes, it is about gratitude too.
How then does one break the shackles of all these enslavements?
Only through Torah. The Talmud says that the only truly free person is someone who is involved in Torah. Because through the Mitzvot, and especially the learning of Torah, G-d shows us how to live a life which puts all of these things in balance – physical pleasure, spiritual connection, emotional wellbeing, family values – held together by the soul and the intellect at the centre of it, so that we are exercising complete freedom at all times, in every area of our lives. This is a high ideal, but one which we can strive for.