We were slaves to Pharoah in the land of Egypt, and the Lord our God took us out of there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. And if the Holy One had not taken our ancestors out of Egypt, we and our children and our children’s children might never have known what was possible.
When we arrived on these shores, many of us became factory workers in the garment industry. We were tailors and cutters, finishers and pressers. We were piece workers, pressured to work as fast as humanly possible. Like the slaves in Egypt forced to make our own bricks, we were forced to supply our own materials— needles, thread, and sewing machines. We were men and women, and children as young as six and eight, working in sweatshop. And we were the garment workers in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire who met their deaths one hundred years ago last month.
But we were also organizers. And strikers and picketers. We were beaten and arrested, but we stood strong. We were unionists and marchers, collective bargainers and negotiators. We were the Uprising of the 20,000. We fought for decent wages and decent working conditions. We rallied and we testified. We joined forces with other immigrant groups and across lines of class and religion to win protective laws and jobs we could live with.
Now some of us are without work, some of us have despaired of finding a job, and some of us live in fear that our jobs will end and our lives will be turned upside down. We find ourselves in these situations not because of who we are, but because of decisions made far above us by powerful politicians and corporations. The unions that we fought to create and for which we stood and marched in solidarity have been attacked and undermined. We are called to stand up once more for the rights of all workers and the simple dignity of fair and decent working conditions.
And now, even if we are all wise, and even if we are all clever, even if we no longer all work in sweatshops or live in tenements, we are still duty-bound to remember and retell the stories of our past. And the more we recall what we were able to achieve, working together, hand in hand, the better our future will be.
Song: Avadim Hayinu
(Traditional melody, new lyrics by Rabbi Gilah Langner)
Once we were slaves / in Egyptland
Then we were freed /by God’s own hand
But you can’t be free / without proper work
A decent wage, a decent place / a boss who’s not a jerk
We stand with those / who are still in misery
Good jobs are the cornerstone of liberty.
Chorus: Avadim hayinu, hayinu
Ata bnei horin, bnei horin 3x
The Exodus story is fundamental to Judaism. The liberation from Egypt defines us as a people. As a touchstone for Jewish identity, it was our essential passage as we prepared for revelation. We do not reenact the Exodus story only once a year during Pesach. Our liturgy has us sing the great Song of the Sea every morning, to signal our daily redemption from slavery. Redeeming those who remain captive and preventing future enslavement must be our moral imperative every day.
The Ninth Plague: Not Seeing. The ninth plague – hoshech, or darkness, that covered the Egyptians’ habitations must have been terrifying indeed. The Egyptians couldn’t see; our tradition describes this darkness as so thick that you could touch it, feel it. And yet, long before the plague itself descended, the Egyptians had trouble seeing what was going on around them. They refused to see the humanity of the slaves who were building the legacy of Egypt with backbreaking unpaid labor; they ignored the institution of slavery that made possible the amassing of wealth in their society. A willful blindness had spread through the land even before the plague of darkness was unleashed. We too, in our own days, often choose darkness when we do not want to see. We ignore the exploitation of domestic workers in our midst. We don’t look past the cheap consumer goods we eagerly scoop up to pause and ask about how they are made, and by whom. We close our eyes to the fact that 27 million people live in conditions of slavery in our world today. As we recount the plagues at our Seder tables this year, let us open our own eyes to the slavery that we too often fail to see.
B’farech. The Torah uses a curious word to refer to the enslavement of the Israelites: Va-ya’avidu Mitzrayim et Bnei Yisrael b’farech. The Egyptians enslaved the Israelites with hard labor. An alternative reading of the term b’farech is b’feh rakh – “with soft words.” That is, the Egyptians deceived the Israelites about their intentions, using false promises and deceptions. By the time the truth was revealed, it was too late; we were already enslaved. How often we see this today when modern slave owners speak with “soft words”. They might promise parents they will look after their children, but reduce those children to hideous servitude and prostitution. Slave owners in dozens of countries lure people into service by offering a loan to “help them out” in an emergency. The needy are then paid a pittance and charged high interest rates on the “loan”. These victims can never repay the loan, and may enslave their children as well as themselves on account of those “soft words” -- b’farech.
Steps Toward Slavery. Our rabbis tell us that Israel underwent three critical experiences related to slavery: first, we were strangers in strange land (gerut); second, we were enslaved and forced to work (avdut); and third, we were afflicted (inui), which means subjected to harsh conditions and a loss of human dignity. Although millennia have passed, these experiences are still at the core of modern slavery. Across the continents of Asia, Africa, and elsewhere, people are transported from their homes by the threat or use of violence, deception, or coercion, and turned into gerim, strangers in foreign lands. The loss of one’s home and freedom of movement allows for enslavement (avdut) at the hands of ruthless slave owners, and results in a lifetime of poverty, hard labor, and forced servitude. Finally, the humiliation and loss of personal dignity that is inui is a daily experience for millions, particularly women and young girls. Today it is we who must become the redeemers. Our freedom comes with the responsibility for liberating others who remain enslaved now, at Passover, and throughout the year, until every human being can enjoy the dignity of freedom.
If you search the traditional Haggadah, you won’t find the name of the man who led the Israelites out of Egypt. Moses is strangely absent, written out of the annual ritual of reenactment. The Torah tells us that Moses was the most humble of men, but surely this is taking humility too far! The message in Moses’s absence, though, is clear: we cannot wait for a Moses before tackling redemption in our time – whether saving the planet from the threat of climate disaster, or redeeming our brothers and sisters from modern slavery and trafficking.
There’s something else missing from the Haggadah – the great moral imperative of the Torah – YOU SHALL NOT OPPRESS THE STRANGER ... because you know what it’s like to be one. Over and over, the Torah tells us not to wrong the stranger – to take our experience of slavery and turn it into ethical action. It seems that themost important memory we are to take with us from our hundreds of years of oppression ... is what it feels like to be aliens. And not to inflict that experience on others.
So what happened? Here I think the rabbis of the Haggadah got a little off course when they arrived at the heart of Maggid. As a framework for telling the story of the Exodus, they selected the simple, proud paragraph in Deuteronomy that the free Israelite was supposed to proclaim when bringing a harvest basket of fruit to the Temple. It begins: “A wandering Aramean was my father....”
But then the rabbis of the Haggadah turned that straightforward recollection into a victim’s lament – “Go forth and inquire what the Aramean tried to do to my father.” Now the victimhood extends back to Jacob, who suffered at the hands of his father-in-law Laban the Aramean (although as I recall the story, Jacob gave as good as he got).
In any case, here’s how I'd like the Haggadah to remember the Torah's mandate at the beginning of the retelling of the Exodus story each year:
Tzei u-l’mad . .. Go forth and learn how the Torah teaches us to act upon our experience of slavery in Egypt. She-neemar, as it is said, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourself been strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Ex. 23:9). And when we came to the land of Israel, we recalled: "A wandering Aramean was my father and he went down to Egypt (in search of food) and sojourned there with only a few, and there he became a great and populous nation."
Four Questions on Slavery
Our tradition speaks of four children or four attitudes: the wise child, the wicked child, the simple child, and the one who does not know how to ask. Each child has a different reaction to hearing about slavery.
What does the wise child say? “What are the testimonies, the statutes, and the laws that apply to this situation? How we are to discern what God demands of us?”
You are to answer this child: “God brought us out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage that we may understand the heart of those suffering in slavery, and use all our powers to redeem them.”
What does the wicked child say? “What does all this work have to do with you?” Notice: “you,” not him or her. The wicked child stays far removed from suffering, and thus has lost the essence of our teachings.
You might ask this child: “If you had been in Egypt, would you have been redeemed? And if you do not lift a finger now, who will redeem those who languish in slavery?”
The simple child asks: “What’s this all about?”
And you should teach this child: God brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand, out of the house of slaves. So we should use our strength to abolish slavery around the world. No slavery. No exceptions.
And the one who does not know to ask, you must open his and her eyes to what is going on. For today there are 27 million people living in slavery, and over 8 million of them are children. Surely this is one reason God took our people out of Egypt long ago – so that we might understand what it means to be a slave, and so that we might help free all those who live in slavery.