Parashat Re'eh

Lessons for Former Slaves

How can people who have worked to regain their freedom enslave their brothers?

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This law is relevant today. With slavery still a reality, we are obligated to support the empowerment of the enslaved in practical and material ways. An AJWS grantee, Friends of Orphans (FRO), updates this biblical imperative into a contemporary global context. Winner of the Free the Slaves Harriet Tubman Award, FRO helps children who have been forced to serve as slaves and soldiers in northern Uganda. Founded by six former child soldiers, FRO offers these children tools to heal and thrive.

What are today's equivalents of the biblically mandated livestock, food, and wine? FRO pays school fees, runs vocational programs, offers counseling, provides arts and cultural programming, and offers health care, especially for HIV/AIDS (most of the child soldiers return HIV positive). Friends of Orphans empowers freed child slaves and soldiers with the supports they need to create and sustain their freedom.

Bertha Pappenheim, a Jewish social activist and fighter of slavery in 20th century Germany, wrote, "You feel oppressed by your Judaism only as long as you do not take pride in it." The presence of slavery legislation in the Torah can be a blemish in our textual history, or it can be a call to our collective responsibility for the vulnerable among us. Though we aren't slaveholders today, we have the opportunity to be matir asurim--freeing the enslaved.

Memories from Ghana

One of the most powerful places I have visited was located on a sunny beach in Ghana. Elmina Castle has a deceptively beautiful exterior. Inside, it was a place of torture and bondage. Hundreds of thousands of Africans passed into slave ships headed to America through its famous "Door of No Return." Strikingly, in this place of horror, words of healing and responsibility are inscribed on the wall:

"In Everlasting Memory of the anguish of our ancestors: May those who died rest in peace. May those who return find their roots. May humanity never again perpetrate such injustice against humanity. We, the living, vow to uphold this."

May we, the living and the free, descendants of slaves and slaveowners, accept our responsibility to actively support the elimination of slavery and to support its survivors toward sustainable freedom.

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Rabbi Dorothy A. Richman

Rabbi Dorothy A. Richman is the Rabbi Martin Ballonoff Memorial Rabbi-in-Residence at Berkeley Hillel.