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Slavery lives in our attitudes

Washington Jewish Week - Online Edition | Rockville, MD

1/30/2013 12:05:00 PM
Slavery lives on in our attitudes

by Rabbi Gil SteinlaufDuring the holiday break, I took my kids to the Smithsonian Museum of American History. We went to an exhibit about the emancipation from slavery in this country, its effects a century later and on to this day. We went past a glass case that contained tiny shackles, meant for the wrists of a child. It was crowded, but I couldn't but linger at that horrifying object. It's not unlike the huge pile of shoes in the Holocaust Museum - tangible objects that silently make unspeakable horror so very real and palpable. My God, I thought, how could this be possible? How could any human being sink to such cruelty and heartlessness? But here is proof, literally in front of me.
The story of the Exodus from Egypt attests that there has been slavery, brutality and cruelty for as long as there has been human civilization. It's still a reality today around the world. Thank God, we think, we're past institutionalized slavery in this country. Yes, there is still human trafficking and brutal treatment of workers and children right here in America, and that needs our immediate action. But at least the United States has outlawed slavery. At least that's over. Now, at least, we Americans can go to the Smithsonian and shake our heads at the depths that we once sank to generations ago.
But slavery is not over. Not even here, not even in the affluent, enlightened neighborhoods of good, caring, law-abiding Americans. If there's anything that the biblical Exodus story teaches us, it's that slavery is far deeper than shackles and taskmasters. The brutality of slavery extends far beyond the victimization of slaves. Slavery is a spiritual cancer that infects the hearts and souls of the societies that engage in it.
God has the Israelites wander for "forty years," the symbol of a whole generation, a lifetime, before the descendants of the slaves are ready to enter the Promised Land.
Slavery is a state of mind in both victim and victimizer, a devastation that takes not years, but generations - centuries, in fact - to overcome. The Bible teaches that God revealed the Divine Ineffable Name for the first time to Moses at the burning bush. It was this revelation that compelled Moses to go before Pharaoh and say "Let my people go." The ancient rabbis explain that this name was hitherto unknown in the world because it revealed God's ultimate essence: compassion; a Divine compassion so deep, so great, that it would do whatever it takes to bring a whole people out of slavery.
The Exodus from Egypt has inspired humanity for generations because it is about the birth of compassion in human civilization. It captures the possibility within us all to rise above fear and enslavement. The Exodus terrifies even as it inspires. Yes, God works miracles for the slaves, but the same God strikes down Egypt's innocent first-born. In this, we learn the horrific cost of slavery. Not only the slaves, but even the most innocent of the enslaving society suffer from its effects. Those effects can cripple a society for generations after the slavery has ended.
Slavery officially ended in this country 150 years ago. Unofficially, it rages on. There are currently more African American adults in the American penal system than were slaves in this country in the years prior to the Civil War. Racism, mistrust, and violence between whites and blacks continues to define American society into this century.
We all have witnessed continued attempts at black disenfranchisement in the recent elections in southern states. The astronomical rate of incarceration of black men feeds a continuous cycle of breaking down families, poverty and oppression.
Most of us care deeply about these terrible social issues. But until we can fully see that we still have slavery, just in another form, our work is not done. In its essence, slavery is the result of a society that does not collectively place compassion as its highest shared social value.
The Exodus story is so valuable not only because it rails against the institution of slavery, but because it reveals that the only real solution to slavery is a spiritual one.
Where compassion is absent, slavery is present. It's that simple.
The ongoing oppression of African Americans is the result of countless small choices and attitudes of all Americans not just of overt racists that create constant conditions of spiritual enslavement. Not just in American racism, but even in our personal relationships we enslave every time we belittle, dehumanize, abuse. In every misuse of power, in every arrogant remark or attitude, we are no better than Pharaoh, and our innocent "first born," our children and other innocents, pay the price, generation after generation.
We have, indeed, come a long way in our society in the past 150 years. But slavery is not over yet. We don't see clearly enough the direct link between our every thoughtless action and the ongoing oppression of others. Only when we have the courage to live for compassion in every moment, choice, and action; only when we choose see the infinite value of every human life in every relationship - only in our own choosing compassion here and now can we create the end of slavery in the world.
Gil Steinlauf is the senior rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C. 


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