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The Jewish peoples’ Exodus from Egypt is arguably the main event in the Torah narrative. Three millennia later we are called to remember it every day in our prayers, every week on Shabbat, recount the whole story in the upcoming holiday of Passover.

While we are not enjoined to remember coming into the land of Israel, or even the covenants we have with God, over and over we are commanded to remember that we were slaves in Egypt.

Slavery isn’t just some aspect of our identity, it is the cornerstone of our existence as a people. Since we remember what it is to live in slavery, to be the laborers of Pharaoh, our freedom and independence is all the more cherished. In Deuteronomy, most of the teachings of God are recounted in reference to the redemptive event, in a way stating that God’s own word is not enough to justify the commandments, but reasons must be given, the ultimate reason being the memory of slavery. As such, the teachings of the Seder can be simplified down to one point: slavery is not to be remembered as a past-phenomenon, something that “just happened.” The Bad Son does not deny that slavery existed–he simply places himself outside of the story.

Thus, in Exodus 12:11 we are instructed to eat the Passover meal “with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand”–in complete identification with the slave, with the moment before freedom, with the possibility of redemption and the willingness to carry out that redemption ourselves.

brickmakers_1.jpgBut this teaching has been lost on many. Instead of girding our loins or preparing our staff, many Jews come together for lavish banquets and talk about freedom without recognizing that, for many, freedom does not exist. How can we truly say that we “remember what is like to be a slave in the House of Pharaoh” when there are currently slaves not only in the House of Pharaoh, but also in our own backyards in Israel (and America)?

If we are to aspire to being the Good Son (or daughter, for that matter), we should revive the custom of eating the Seder with our loins girded, our staff in our hand, and our minds focused on those who still reside in the house of bondage.

It may surprise some (as it did myself) to know that there are an estimated 30 million individuals living in slavery today – that’s more than all the people stolen from Africa during the whole period of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and 5 times the entire population of Israel. The US State Department reports that within 10 years, human trafficking will exceed arms and drugs as the largest illegal enterprise in the world.

With that in mind, leading up to Pesach, I have decided to start a project I am in no way qualified for; I will have a series of posts that will seek to provide you, O valued readers of Jewlicious with an enhanced perspective on our own freedom, information about modern day slavery, and what might be done about it, because we can’t harden our hearts.

One thing that can be done about it is funding those organizations who are actively engaged in Jewlicious is starting a fundraising campaign for this purpose. The money will be split to help two different organizations, one that does work specifically in Israel, and one that helps the world at large.

The first is the Task Force on Human Trafficking, an organization aimed at helping end human trafficking in Israel. They deal with the government, the victims and raising public awareness.

The international organization will soon be decided based on ongoing talks with experts in the field helping us identify where funds will be most beneficial.

Funds will be collected through the end of Passover. The TFHT is a 501(c)3, and you are also free to make donations to them directly.

A few links for more information:

I Abolish. An American Anti-Slavery Group.

Free the Slaves information on modern day slavery.

The Protection Project of Johns Hopkins University working towards an international framework For The Elimination Of Trafficking In Persons, Especially Women and Children.

I also encourage you to sign the TFHT petition – For Rabbis and For the rest of us.


Special thanks to Aaron Cohen, Michele Clark and Ariel Beery.

This post is in memory of Aaron’s father, Arthur Cohen who died Tuesday at the age of 89.










About the author

Laya Millman

25 Comments

  • Wonderful post and a fantastic mitzvah you are undertaking. Pidyon Shvuim, freeing of captives, is a major mitzvah that is soooo big, that we can desecrate the shabbat for it. The slave problem of course is huge worldwide and in our beloved ISRAEL, where women have been kept as sex-slaves in industry brothels.

    I did lose you here though:
    If we are to aspire to being the Good Son (or daughter, for that matter), we should revive the custom of eating the Seder with our loins girded, our staff in our hand, and our minds focused on those who still reside in the house of bondage.

    We are commanded to remember the Sabbath too.

    And the Torah instructs us to use our finest dishes and silver to enhance the beauty of the seder. We should dress up and wear fine clothes, and sit in fine chairs and recline on fine pillows… The seder is a feast of freedom, and we are Baruch Hashem, free. The Talmud and later the shulchan aruch are clear that a seder needs to be a lavish affair, albeit with a great emphasis on the rituals and regulations. The eating of the matzah, the drinking the four cups of wine, the recitation of the hagadah, keeping the kids interested and awake the whole time, and of course the meal just to name the most important.

    So if you really want to loincloth, go ahead, it should be a lively and exciting evening. And DO talk of present day problems — but dont lose the simcha of yomtov. It is imperative that we rejoice on the holiday, and not be morose and Tikkun-seder-like and make the whole thing a guilt fest. The year is long, and we need the celebration of seder to inspire us in our godly work and endeavors.

  • RY, you are missing the point. How can we celebrate so highly, when the very thing we are commemorating, the ending of slavery, still exists, in the millions?
    Simchat Yom Tov, can be carried out in various forms, new clothing, wine, meat, learning Torah, etc…

  • anyway according to Rashi Simchat Yom Tov, is not a Mitzvah, but it is a condition that will occur on Yom Tov. I learnt this last week, is is in Devarim, I can get you the exact location if you wish. Simchat Yom Tov I believe is referring ‘only’ to Succot, tho by custom we include all holidays it seems.

  • Great post, Laya–you’re doing the cause a great service, and also giving kavod to the memory of Aaron’s father.

    I often think about the relativity of circumstances from one person (and one nation) to the next…how my NYC rent could probably feed a family of ten for a year in some African nation somewhere…how Adam Sandler’s 20 million dollar paycheck could fund the curing of cancer or create a solution to world hunger.

    If you haven’t seen Born Into Brothels, it’s awful and amazing and eye-opening and disturbing. But worth the experience.

    In any case, freedom is taken advantage of every day, but the emancipation of the downtrodden is certainly something we should all contribute to…

  • Laya you are awesome, and this post is awesome.

    I plan on linking this post to everyone on my mailing list – and then some. I encourage everyone else to do the same.

  • Great idea!
    The situation in Israel vis a vis prostitution and illegal alien workers is a terrible embarrassment and affront to our people’s values. Unfortunately this is where trying to be “a nation like all others” has led us.

  • Kol Hakavod you guys.

    I’m sorry to hear that Aaron’s father passed away. Any word on the shiva? I tried calling but got voice mail (or course) and don’t know who else knows him.

    This is really important work.

  • thanks laya for getting us thinking about passover in a meaningful way. i look forward to reading your future posts and sharing them with my family.

  • OK folks. Time to kick in some cash! Anything will do, $2, $5 whatever. When do we ever ask you for anything? Let’s go kids, Passover’s coming!

  • Oh please, Ben David, the existence of prostitution has nothing to do with trying to be like other nations. Doth not the old testament recall stories of our forefathers (i.e. Jacob) sleeping with the occasional (disguised as) prostitutes (i.e. Tamar)?

  • thank you for posting this.

    i run a USY chapter and we raise hundreds of dollars each year that we give to charity in june. i am going to suggest one of these organizations to receive some of our tikkun olam money from this year’s collection. i am always looking for good organizations to present to the kids for donation at the end of the year.

  • It’s a great cause guys, one worth giving to. I went with a Chai number. Just figured it was appropriate. As far as the Yom Tov thing, Rabbi Yona is right, in that being happy on Yom Tov is a mitzvah according to Shulchan Orech. (The way to manifest it is also stipulated, as Jobber pointed out, but it is not a precondition of the day, but somthing that is encumbant upon you as a mitzvah.)

    The better question is what does a vegan, anti-materialistic, alchohale/substance free, diabetic do to have simchat yom tov? He does’t like to eat meat, she doesn’t want knew clothes, deffenetly won’t drink wine, and can’t eat candies…. That person may just be stuck being unhappy. Guess that’s why there has to be more to halacha then the simple rule as written. Remember they are a means towards an end, not the end in themselves. (They may in fact be the only means though… the verdict on that is still out it seems…)

  • You guys have a PO BOx for snail mail ?
    PH, for a vegan, they should eat whatever is more expensive, and special, or whatever brings them simcha. In my case, for example, how to put this, if I go to the later minyan, i have more enjoyment sleeping w/ my wife in the morning.

    There really is a Rashi that said it’s not a mitzvah it’s in Devarim, I will ask my Rav if he remembers where it is, we just touched upon it for some other reason. I do think Simchat Yom Tov
    is based on Succot only. The Vilna Gaon considers this the HARDEST mitzvah in the Torah that of being besimcha on Succot.

    Regarding the foreign workers there is exploitation but they are not forced into it, and the wage is cool for them. Of course they would take more. The larger problem is the trafficking in women in Israel as well. In the big liberal city of Amsterdam w/ the red light district btw, most of those women are slaves from Eastern Europe. In the USA they just caught a ring in New Jersey smuggling in girls as young as 14 from Hondouras. can you beleive this?

  • Excellent post Laya. I would agree with Jobber’s comment that many women (and girls) who are sold into slavery are from Eastern Europe. A number of those women and an incredible man who searched desperately for his stolen wife, were profiled on this episode of the PBS series Frontline. The stories are shocking and disturbing and, unfortunately, far too common.

  • To everybody in a college a capella group:

    Please visit http://www.singoutnow.org

    College students are orchestrating a national a capella marathon to raise awareness and money to bring an end to slavery, all during the week of Pesach.

    Shabbat Shalom

  • I was blessed enough to meet Aaron at the conference this year, what an amazing dude, such a humbling experience to meet someone doing so much like its no big deal. Thanks for postin this Laya!!

  • Reb Yonah, The Pasuk I was referring to is at the end of Parshas Re’eh. “ViHayitah Ach Sameach”, Rashi there says that being happy on Yom Tov is not a Tzivui, that is, a mitzvah, altho he says, Pishuto, at first glance. Then he mentions that there are those who learn from this that you are to be happy at the end of the Chag (Simchat Torah?), clearly that Pasuk is talking about Succot. How we learn to be w/ Simcha on other Yamim Tovim, I am looking for.

    To clarify the Rabbi’s point however, it seems that there is a school of thought that we are not so obligated to rectify evils and sins occuring in the world at large. We are still empowered to have our bikavod sederim w/ out any changed or deviations. There is no contracdiction in doing so.

  • muffti-leh: I was referring to a famous exchange between a leader of secular Zionism and a prominent religious Zionist back in the 1950s.

    The secular guy said, “when we have Jewish thieves and prostitutes, then we’ll know we’ve succeeded!”

    The religious guy answered, “are you volunteering your daughter?”

    His point – and the point of Laya’s post – is that NOBODY should be accepting of this behavior, the entrapment of anyone else’s sons or daughters.

    Sorry if this crabs your fun-loving style, muffti…

  • hehehe…sorry, ben david, Muffti isn’t as quick with the references. Muffti’s fun-loving style doesn’t depend on the existence of prostitution, so no worries – though he takes some issue with the identificaiton of prostitution iwth entrapment and slavery. The two simply aren’t co-extensive; one can be a whore by choice. But whatever…

  • muff, obviously one can be a whore by choice, and many are. The difference is that it is a choice. Prostitutes by choice get some say as to how often they work, how many men they will see and what they will and will not do. They can leave the profession at any time. They also get paid.

    Sex slaves do not have these benefits of choice. That’s where the problem lies.

    So nu? No Pesach tzedakka money from you to help the little unwilling whores?

  • Yes, Laya, Muffti is well aware of the difference between chosen and involuntary whore-dom. Muffti is waiting to get repaid for the many trips he had to take searching for, whatchamacallit, paranassah so he can get a better view of his dismal financial situation.

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