Modern slavery

Friday, 9 February, 2018 - 7:15 am

The Chinese are in the process of taking over the world market. How do they do it?

A wise person once said that they have simply invented a new way of doing things, which the rest of the world isn’t familiar with: they work during their workhours.

It is very important to work during one’s workhours, of course. But it is no less important to know to stop working after hours, and to allow ourselves to live, as well.

In this week’s parasha we learn the laws of the Hebrew servant. A Hebrew servant is a Jew who has found himself in a financial or personal crisis (such as having been caught stealing), and has had no choice but to be sold or sell himself as a slave in order to return his debt. The sale is for only six years, and when that time is up, he becomes a free person. If that person wishes to remain a servant, it is possible, but on condition that he do something unpleasant: have his ear pierced.

Why is it the ear that is pierced?

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai said in tractate Kiddushin, “The ear that heard [Hashem saying] on Mount Sinai ‘To me Bnei Yisrael are slaves,’ and went and took upon himself a master, will be pierced.” Hashem says to the Jew: I understand that you had to sell yourself as a slave in order to pay off your debts; it was absolutely necessary, and that’s fine. But why do you still wish to serve a flesh-and-blood master after you have already been freed? Look around and see what you are really worth. Look and see whom you should really subject yourself to: not to a human being, but rather to the Creator of the World.

In our world today there is almost no classical slavery left, but there is definitely modern slavery. When we speak of modern slavery, the reference is usually to the U.N.’s report and to the World Labor Organization that deals mainly with workers in poor African countries, or with migrant workers in the Western world who work many hours for very little payment in order to earn their meagre portions of bread.

The Rebbe says there is another kind of modern slavery, and it is not poor workers who earn very little, but also and maybe mainly, someone who might have a good, respectable and well-paying job. Why is he called a slave, in spite of this? Because he doesn’t recognize the boundary between work and life. I started my message with the Chinese, who definitely work during workhours, and that’s wonderful – that’s the way it should be. But one mustn’t forget that beyond work there is life. Beyond work there are family and children, dreams and wishes. There is spiritual life and there is a holy soul that is suffering thirst in a dry, wasted land.

The Rebbe brings a rather simple way to gauge the situation: the holy day of Shabbat. Shabbat is the day on which we raise ourselves above our material existence, like chassidim say in Yiddish: “one tefach (handbreadth) higher. They set aside the temporal life and turn instead to eternal life. If you find yourself preoccupied with work matters on Shabbat, that means that you are a modern slave.


Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

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