Throughout history, Jews have experienced the bitterness of slavery and the sweetness of freedom. Yet too often, we only think about issues of slavery around Passover. This Shabbat, however, coincides with Human Trafficking Awareness Day (January 11, 2019), a reminder that slavery is sadly alive and well today. In fact, more people are enslaved today than at any other point in history – more than 40 million people worldwide.
Human trafficking is one form of slavery, defined by the UN as the “recruitment, transportation, transfer harboring of receipt of persons” through “threat or use of force, coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or vulnerability, or giving payments or benefits to a person in control of the victim for the purpose of exploitation.” Human trafficking can take the form of private labor exploitation, state-imposed labor, and sexual exploitation. Human trafficking exists in our own backyard, though often unseen; in the US, the National Human Trafficking hotline receives an average of 150 calls per day. In the face of this overwhelming problem, we can turn to this week’s parsha, Bo, for inspiration to combat human trafficking and to remember the lessons of the Exodus year-round.
Before unleashing the tenth and final sign, or plague, God instructs Moses and Aaron, “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you” (Exodus 12:2). Though Jews celebrate the new year during Rosh Hashanah, the first month on the Hebrew calendar is Nisan, the month of the Exodus. Rashi clarifies that the beginning of the Jewish month converges with the “time when the moon renews itself.” Many even consider sanctifying the new moon and keeping a calendar to be the first mitzvah given to the Israelites.
Why might sanctifying the new moon be so important for a soon-to-be-liberated people? New beginnings create opportunities for transformation. Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, a 19th century Hasidic thinker, expounds on the first three words of Exodus 12:2, teaching, “That is to say, the power of the month will be for you, that you should be able to renew yourselves in words of Torah and in your actions” (Mei HaShiloach, Volume II, Exodus, Bo 2). For the Israelites, the beginning of the month of Nisan coincided with physical liberation and, consequently, the potential for spiritual and embodied renewal. Each month we are given the gift of new beginnings.
Given our own history, we have the responsibility to help make this promise of renewal, this experience of liberation, real for the tens of millions of enslaved people today. One way we can do this is by acknowledging the ways in which human trafficking manifests and making small but important changes in our daily lives. For example, we can make intentional choices to buy products produced by a supply chain free of human slavery (read more through the Fair Food Program). Using the resources below, we can learn more human trafficking and educate members of our own communities. The low profile of human trafficking in North America allows it to continue, but it does not have to remain this way.
The cyclical nature of the new moon can serve as a reminder that the potential to make real liberation and renewal always exists, not just during Passover or when we attend synagogue.
Survivor of sex trafficking Margeaux Gray speaks to the power of the moon’s presence, writing,
"During my enslavement, the moon was a constant in my life. Its light was a safe harbor in my darkness. It gave me hope. I would look at it and not feel alone.”
On Human Trafficking Awareness Day and every day thereafter, let us find the reminders we need to contribute to the reduction of slavery in our world.
- Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism's Human Trafficking page
- Fighting Modern-Day Slavery: A Handbook for Jewish Communities from T’ruah
- The Other Side of the Sea: A Haggadah for Fighting Modern-Day Slavery from T’ruah
- ATEST (Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking)
- Polaris Project
- Free the Slaves
- Coalition of Immokalee Workers