From the Bima

Rabbi Howard S. Herman DD

We Aren’t Free Until Everyone Is Free

We call Passover the “Festival of Freedom” as we celebrate our ancestors being freed from Egyptian bondage in the 13th Century BCE under the leadership of Moses. Our Jewish “Festival of Freedom” is the oldest continually observed religious ritual in the world. Metaphorically we are told, the Jewish people wandered in the desert for the next 40 years looking to arrive in a homeland as promised by God. Whenever Passover comes each year, I take some time to think about the concept of freedom which so dominates this season of the year for Jews. I try to think about our own sense of being free here in the United States or anywhere in the world for that matter. I once read a quote which admonished, “Freedom is not just the absence of oppression, but the presence of a meaningful route to self-fulfillment.” I think about that very idea whenever I muse about freedom. On April 10, 1943, the residents of the Warsaw Ghetto, held a makeshift Passover meal, celebrating their freedom. The Ghetto, however, was anything but free, and Nazi soldiers were in the process of liquidating it. The residents of the Warsaw Ghetto capitalized on “spiritual freedom” even facing the most extreme hardship in which they were daily living. In Jewish tradition, we differentiate between yi’ud which means fate and goral which means destiny. My fate is in the hand of cards I have been dealt. My destiny is how I choose to play them. Regardless of the hand we are dealt, every one of us is free to shape our own destiny even in the most challenging of times and circumstances.

Each year we sit and tell the story of the Jewish journey from slavery to freedom. Every year the matzo. Each year the traditional songs. It is not just about memory. The Passover seder invites us through questioning, to give memory meaning. During the Civil War, Jewish soldiers on the union side who celebrated the seder in field tents spoke of themselves as actors in the story, leading the slaves to freedom. Today there are seder plates that now feature a very non-traditional orange, to symbolize the LGBTQ+ community struggle for freedom. Some people add olives to a seder plate to symbolize a hope for peace between Israel and the Palestinian people, and this year there will be an empty chair at seder tables everywhere, symbolizing the hope for the Israeli hostages to be returned to their families.

Three thousand years ago after the Jewish people were liberated from slavery, and a century and a half after the Civil War, more people are enslaved today than at any other point in history. According to the most conservative estimates of the International Labor Organization and the International Organization for Migration nearly 49.6 million people are held in situations of forced labor and forced marriage and one quarter of them are children below the age of 18 today: that figure represents seven out of every thousand people in the world. Florida ranks third in the highest number of trafficking cases in the United States. The issue of slavery can sometimes feel remote, both temporally and geographically. Tragically, however, slavery not only persists but has also grown in scope. Much of this slavery takes place in regions with highly repressive regimes and armed conflict. But slavery also takes place in the United States, in the shadows of the very communities where we live.

Human trafficking does not occur in a vacuum but is the extreme end of a continuum of human exploitation and vulnerability. The innumerable people who are trafficked for sex-work or domestic work or forced marriage all have one thing in common: their freedom has been stolen from them. In this Passover season of freedom and of redemption, when we are reminded of the plight of our ancestors and their Exodus from bondage, our hearts cry out for those who are victims of modern-day slavery and we need to do all that we can to ensure their liberation and recovery. As Jews, especially at this time of year, we need to think about and support worker led campaigns to raise wages, combat abuses, and create meaningful enforcement mechanisms to implement hard-won rights.

So, as we sit down to our Passover seders, whether we have one or two seders, as we tell the story and sing the songs of freedom, and as we remember the “mighty hand and the outstretched arm” that freed us long ago, let us not be complacent and haughty. We need to commit to taking action to release all others from the torture and bondage of slavery today. May we work together to create a world where all people know freedom, so that next year, when we sit down for our seders, slavery will truly be a sin of the past.

A Zissen Pesach to you

Rabbi Howard S. Herman DD
Naples Jewish Congregation
Naples, Florida