We often read the biblical narrative of slavery as a relic of our past. However, as consumers in a global economy we unwittingly utilize products tainted by slavery every day.
In 2011, a group of workers from the New York State Fair appeared at a health clinic near Syracuse, New York with malnutrition. It turned out that these workers had been working eighty or more hours a week for only $2 an hour. Their “employers” had taken away their passports so the workers were trapped.
Last April, in Hamilton, Ontario, the owner of a construction company was charged with enslaving nineteen Hungarian citizens. He had promised these workers high paying jobs, and paid for their flights to Canada. He then confiscated their passports, and locked them in the basements of his relatives’ homes, where they were fed what one worker described as “three-day-old meals that even dogs would not eat.” The workers were forced to work seven days a week without pay.
Unfortunately, these are not isolated incidents. An estimated eleven to twenty-seven million people in the world currently live in slavery.
In Parshat Va’era, Moses struggles to speak up to Pharaoh on behalf of the enslaved Israelites. Moses’ speech impediment becomes a block to accepting leadership. Demoralized by his apparent failure, Moses appeals to God: “Indeed the children of Israel have not listened to me, so how will Pharaoh listen, since I am a man of uncircumcised lips?” [Ex. 6:12].
The 19th century Hassidic master, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, author of Sefat Emet, explained that the cause of Moses’ inefficacy was not his speech impediment at all but rather the inability of the people to hear the message. “The prophet prophesies by the power of those who listen” (Sefat Emet, 2:40), he wrote.
As Moses articulates, liberation requires that both the people held in slavery and those who benefit from slave labor realize that another way is possible. Today, in most of the instances in which slavery cases are discovered and prosecuted, the slaves themselves recognize the injustice of their situation and find the courage to speak up.
Will the rest of us—who are not slavemasters, but who benefit from goods produced by slaves—have the courage to listen and to speak up as well?
The economics of slavery works because we live within the confines of a market that values convenience, novelty and materialism over human rights.
According to Tomatoland, the recent exposé on the tomato industry, U.S. Attorney Douglas Molloy, who has spent a decade prosecuting slavery cases in Florida, asserts that “any American who has eaten a winter tomato, either purchased at a supermarket or on top of a fast food salad, has eaten a fruit picked by the hand of a slave.”
Will we listen to this prophecy?
If we do not listen, we are, like our Israelites ancestors in Parshat Va’era, unable to hear God’s promise of redemption. We must instead listen and imagine a changed reality in which our freedom from slave-tainted goods is linked to the freedom of the estimated 11-27 million people currently enslaved in the world.
Hearing the cry of oppression requires actualizing a sacred commitment. We can derive wisdom for the human realm from the example set by God, who hears the cries of the Israelites and responds. Through our own redemptive power, we can free one another from the bonds of Egypt.