Holocaust educators know that some numbers are almost impossible to comprehend: six million Jews; 11 million people; 1.5 million children, 1.1 of them Jewish. But if you tell me one person’s story, then I can begin to understand.
In the face of atrocities today, too, it’s easy to become numb to the numbers.
For most of my life, I thought about slaves primarily on Passover. I knew that slavery still existed, but I didn’t register the statistics. Thirty million slaves, 26 percent of them children. Sixty thousand slaves in the United States. One hundred and fifty billion earned annually by traffickers.
Then, two years ago, I was asked to write a sample sermon on human trafficking. The first book I read for research was “A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery” (Free Press, 2009). Its stories of individual slaves were harrowing. For the first time, as the title demands, I looked the horror in the face.
And then I couldn’t turn away.
Shortly after I agreed to write the sermon, I read an article in The Jewish Standard about Jessica Baer. At age 10, while at Jewish summer camp, Jessica saw a video about child slaves in Ghana. She was profoundly touched by their stories. She “caught” the passion of the video’s presenter, a teacher named Evan Robbins. Years earlier, Robins had read about child slaves working on fishing boats in Lake Volta, and — literally and figuratively — couldn’t turn the page. His child was the same age as the young slave featured in the newspaper. Robbins founded Breaking the Chain Through Education. For nine years, he has freed and educated child slaves in Ghana, while mentoring his American students to become caring global citizens.
Before her Bat Mitzvah, Jessica raised enough money to free 30 slaves and sponsor a classroom in Robbins’ Ghanaian school. I reprinted the article about her and added my own headline: “This is what a 12-year-old did. What can you do?”
Jessica is obviously a special girl, but in one way she is typical: when people see, really see, the face of slavery, they do something. They don’t always change their lives in the way that Jessica or Evan did, but they act.
The Haggadah quotes Pesachim 116b: “In every generation, each of us is obligated to see ourselves as having personally left Egypt.” This instruction demands that we exercise both empathy and imagination. What would it be like to be a slave? How would you feel, if your child were not free? We can also truncate the teaching, as the ancient rabbis sometimes did with biblical verses in order to convey an insight or interpretation: “In every generation, each of us is obligated to see.”
At age 9, Vivienne Harr saw a photo of two slave boys carrying rocks almost as large as their whole bodies, strapped to their heads. They were climbing a dangerous peak, holding hands. She saw their pain and their humanity, so she started a lemonade stand to raise money and free slaves. Some well-meaning people tried to lower her expectations, explaining that she was just one person. Vivienne answered: “Gandhi was one person. Mother Teresa was one person. Martin Luther King was one person. Why can’t you be one person who helps?” Within a year, Vivienne raised enough money to free 500 slaves, gave her first Ted Talk, and inspired thousands of others to “be one person.”
“Zai a mentsch” literally means “be one person.” But, figuratively, it means what Vivienne intended: if you see suffering, do something to help. Be a mentsch.
The Haggadah and Talmud urge us to “expand on the telling of the Exodus from Egypt.” We have done so, in part, by extending the message of the Exodus to Soviet Jews, and, in some circles, to the civil rights and women’s movements. The Torah emphasizes that redemption from slavery carries with it the responsibility to bring freedom and justice to others: “Do not wrong or oppress the stranger… You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”(Exodus 22:21, Deut. 10:19).
You can “be one person” this Passover by bringing the issue of modern slavery to the seders you attend. Rabbis and educators have partnered with Free the Slaves to create Seder Starters — a free, downloadable collection of activities and readings about modern slavery to enhance your seders. As these resources help you raise awareness and, I hope, funds, they will also enliven your discussions and share the values and relevance of our tradition.
The Seder Starters are presented, with summaries, in the order of the Haggadah, to make it easy for you to choose your favorites and integrate them into a seder. Many are very simple to implement. For example, you can: Add a padlock to your seder plate. Read a slave’s account aloud. Eat an extra “dose” of marror (bitter herbs) because the bitterness of slavery persists.
Or, donate half the money you had planned to spend on afikoman gifts to Free the Slaves. This organization lives up to its name, not only by rescuing slaves, but by eliminating the conditions that make people vulnerable to slavery in the first place.
This year, look closely into the Haggadah and the headlines, the Seder Starters and the mirror. No matter where you cast your gaze, if you really look, you will see at least one person.
Rabbi Debra Orenstein is author of Lifecycles book series (Jewish Lights) and a frequent scholar in residence. For more seder resources visit freetheslaves.net/Judaism and the Holidays page at RabbiDebra.com.