By Rabbi Charles Feinberg
This week’s Torah portion is Shemot, Exodus 1:1 – 6:1.
This week we begin reading the Book of Exodus with Parshat Shemot. The parshah describes the enslavement of the Israelites and the commissioning of Moses to be their leader.
Our parshah emphasizes that slavery was “befarech,” that it was back-breaking. In the opening chapter it uses this word twice. “Egypt enslaved the Israelites ‘befarech.’ They embittered their lives with severe labor with mortar and bricks and with all kinds of field work; all the back-breaking work which they work.”
But Pharaoh was impatient and fearful of these Israelites. The forced backbreaking labor was not efficient enough for him. Instead he decreed death to new born male children.
When Moses returned from Midian and confronted Pharaoh, Pharaoh responded by increasing the oppression by forcing the Israelites to make the same quota of bricks but without supplying the necessary straw. Moreover, the pressure to supply the same number of bricks was accompanied by verbal abuse.
While the Torah never outlaws slavery, it does put limits on the enslavement of Israelites. Israelite slaves are set free after six years or with the onset of the sabbatical year.
The Torah prohibits any kind of forced labor or chattel slavery. Slaves cannot be abused. Exodus 21 warns the Israelite not to physically abuse a slave by hitting them in the mouth, causing them to lose a tooth, or hitting them in the eye, causing them to lose an eye. If they do these things, the slave must be freed.
Deuteronomy teaches that we must not free the slave empty-handed, but we must provide for him a sufficient amount so that he or she can live independently.
What the Egyptians did to the Israelites, Israelites should not do to each other.
Ultimately, all Israelite slaves must go free. “They are my servants whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they must not be sold in a slave sale” (Leviticus 25:42).
While the Torah permits some forms of slavery, it tries to outlaw the most abusive kinds. It puts limits on slavery. One can legitimately argue that the Torah looks forward to a day when all people are servants to one God and to no other master.
Mass incarceration has become the slavery of modern America. The conditions of confinement in county, state and federal prisons are often brutal. Prolonged isolation or solitary confinement is routinely used in prisons at all governmental levels. Our tradition teaches and psychological research has demonstrated that “it is not good to be alone.” Isolation for more than 15 days can cause mental and physical distress. Yet is commonplace for prison authorities to segregate some men and women for months and years.
Exodus teaches us not to break the backs of slaves. American prisons and jails often break the health and spirit of those incarcerated.
The Torah also teaches that when slaves are released, they should not go empty-handed. Too often when men and women are released from prison, they cannot find employment or housing because of their prison record. Often the obstacles we put before returning citizens causes them to become homeless or commit criminal acts in order to survive.
We can do better. As a society we can make sure that prisoners are not abused while they are incarcerated. We can make sure that they are provided with decent medical care and educational opportunities. When they leave prison, we can remove the barriers that prevent them from reintegrating into the community.
The time has come for our society to examine what we mean by punishment and whether we believe people can change and make different decisions.
Questions for discussion
What does the Torah learn from the stories of the enslavement of the Israelites, the decrees against the new born, and the severity of the back-breaking labor?
How can these lessons shape our response to slavery today?
Rabbi Charles Feinberg is the executive director of Interfaith Action for Human Rights.
This column originally appeared on Dec. 27, 2018.