Angela W. Buchdahl | February 17, 2012
The last two weeks we have had some of the most wonderfully memorable, fantastic Torah portions in our tradition. In fact, the Song of the Sea, which we had two weeks ago, and the Ten Commandments, which we read last week, are so important that we are instructed to stand up when we hear them read. But this week, you can sit down. Because in this week’s Torah portion, it’s time to read the fine print.
Parashat Mishpatim, which means laws, lays out with great specificity, in no particular order, a jumble of laws on how to run a society. We have laws on how to treat strangers and the orphans and the widows. Punishments for physically hurting or killing people or injuring animals even of our enemy. How to treat people fairly, rules about loaning money, and even some ritual laws including Shabbat observance, festivals, and even kashrut.
It’s a very important list and many of these laws form the foundation for how we run a civil society even today.
But you can see it in the body language of everyone when they open up this Torah portion after the last few weeks: we’re a little bit disappointed. We’re a little bit less riveted. Especially when last week we were on top of the mountain!
It’s easy sometimes to dismiss these laws also as maybe being irrelevant. I mean, how many of us have an ox that could gore our enemy anymore. And the first laws in this portion are on slavery. How obsolete is that? I mean, no one has slaves anymore, do they? Well, actually
Unfortunately there is a particularly depraved form of slavery that is still very much happening in the world: the trafficking of young girls as sex slaves. And this is not just happening in faraway places like Thailand and Cambodia and Eastern Europe. It is happening in our backyard.
The FBI estimates that well over 100,000 children are enslaved in this way in the United States. Their average age is twelve. The internet has also made this particular form of enslavement easier to sell, and harder to stop.
And it’s not only happening here in New York City in our backyard. It’s happening in our “back pages”: that’s the online classified ads of the Village Voice, Backpage.com.
So for a while, child sex trafficking has been a hidden problem, one that most people don’t want to talk about and don’t want to believe could possibly be happening. Only a year and a half ago did the Brooklyn prosecutor’s office even set up a sex-trafficking unit. Before that, no one had been prosecuted for child sex trafficking. But since that unit has been open, in only the last 18 months, they have already prosecuted over 30 people and the vast majority of them have marketed their children through Backpage.com ads. Attorney generals in over 22 states have identified child trafficking happening through Backpage.com.
I’m one of over 80,000 people and over 500 faith leaders who’ve signed that allows for the abuse and exploitation and enslavement of our children. You too can express your belief that even one child trafficked on those pages is too much by going to and signing that petition as well.
Now the Village Voice has fought back viciously, and in a difficult business, prostitution advertising brings in $22 million a year. They argue that the Village Voice might have to close without the income from Backpage.com. Now the Israelites, they too also thought that slavery was not a good thing but it was a necessary evil, a fact of life, the only way that business could really be done.
In a teaching I learned from Rabbi Diane Kohler Esses, the first laws here, the laws on slavery, they’re not actually meant to perpetuate slavery in society, they’re actually given to revolutionize and transform the Israelites’ idea about what slavery is about.
The very first law in Mishpatim says, “When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve for six years. In the seventh year he shall go free.” So you can own a slave, but in the seventh year you have to set that slave free. How radical that is. Not the way it was done before.
And I think that this is very important for the mentality of the Israelites. Because remember, they were slaves, so even though they have become free, they still have a slave mentality, and what this law is asking them to do is to actually take on the mentality of a master for the first time. Just as they were slaves and God freed them, now they are the master and they have the ability to be like God and free their slaves.
This is powerful stuff. And it is nothing short of transforming a slave society into a free one.
So I take it back: these are not irrelevant laws. They’re ones that we should stand to observe today. And it might be true that these are not as dramatic or as exciting as the narratives we’ve had in the last two weeks when we stood up to hear the Song of the Sea and the receiving of the Ten Commandments. But I would argue that these laws do compel us to stand up. To stand up against the slavery that is happening in our own midst.
And while we might feel helpless to stop it all, that does not release any one of us from the responsibility of doing our part. For as each person adds their name to the fight, the groundswell grows and ultimately the terrain will shift and we can witness the redemption of the enslaved in our time.
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