Monday, April 14, 2014

Old Passover, New Passover

Tonight, Jews around the world will gather with family and friends to celebrate one of Judaism’s three most important holidays, Pesach, which translates as Passover. They will share the traditional Passover dinner, a seder. There will be a seder at The White House, once again. President and Mrs. Obama have held seders there since the President took office, and it is a non-political event: personal friends and staff only. The Obamas are the only First Family to honor this Jewish tradition.

As detailed in the Old Testament’s Book of Exodus (chapters 1-15), Passover commemorates the escape from ancient Egypt of “a nation of Hebrew slaves.” For about 100 years (give or take...), Biblical scholars and archeologists have argued about whether or not The Exodus (said to have been led by Moses and lasted 40 years in the desert), really happened, where it happened, and how many people were involved – although the archeologists acknowledge that only a fraction of ancient sites have been found (many of them having been destroyed over the ages) and only a fraction of those have been minimally excavated.

The estimated head-count of The Exodus (from religious and secular sources) varies from approximately 600,000 men, women and children to anywhere from one to three million. But whether or not the Exodus actually occurred, it has been regarded as real and holy by Jews for thousands of years – including the world’s most famous Jewish rabbi (teacher), Jesus Christ, whose holy Last Supper was a seder. This is why Passover and Christianity’s Holy Week (from Palm Sunday through Good Friday and Easter) are religiously/historically linked. Speaking of which, here’s a bit of Americana trivia: Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 15, 1865 – the first night of Passover, which always begins on the 15th of the Jewish month of Nissan (usually April). (Jewish holidays traditionally begin the night before, which is why the 15th is considered the first day.)

Passover celebrates a number of other things and there are many rituals and traditions. But most important is Passover’s celebration of freedom from bondage, from slavery, which may be why, his sensitivity and respect for others aside, Passover is meaningful to our country’s first African American president and his wife, who is a direct descendant of American slaves.

So, while Jews along with non-Jewish relatives and friends celebrate Old Passover, it is urgent to remember that a New Passover is desperately needed, because slavery is alive and sick as ever worldwide, including here in the USA. Now it’s called by other names: human trafficking, sex trafficking, indentured servitude, debt bondage, attached labor, restavec: it amounts to the same thing. Slavery.

When people are held against their will, prevented from moving about freely, forced to live in disgusting, horrible conditions, beaten and tortured, forced to do unspeakable things (like making an eight year old girl have sex with more than 20 men a day), are bought and sold like inanimate objects, and are paid nothing for the misery they endure, they are slaves. And there are 21 to 30 million slaves in the modern world, suffering terribly and serving as the backbone of a $32 billion (annually) industry.

The U.S. has 60,000 slaves, ranking us 134 out of 162 countries with slaves. Many of these are women, teens and very young girls who are trafficked for sex (men and boys, too). So we’re not #1 in the slave business – India has 14 million and 4% of Mauritania’s population of 3,796,141 is enslaved – but how many is okay? Anywhere? For any reason? This is 2014!

I genuinely wish all of you happy holidays. I’m sure you and your families and friends deserve them. While our lives may not be the nightmares of slaves, many still-so-called-middle-class and working class Americans have been struggling since Katrina, Sandy, other natural disasters and the 1%-created Great Recession of 2008. I don’t have what I used to or live like I used to. But I am very grateful for my life as it is, because so many people have it so much worse.

I encourage you to keep today’s slaves in your hearts, thoughts (and prayers, if you’re so inclined) this holiday season. Then, as soon as you can, do some Internet research about modern day slavery and get the full awful picture. Figure out what you can do to help. It may start with simple things like not buying certain brands or shopping in certain stores. It may include contributing to an NGO or non-profit you trust to help support active work on the ground around the world.

But most of all, be aware of this issue and talk about it with others. And keep an eye on the people around you – your apartment building, your neighborhood, your place of work. If you see something or someone that doesn’t look right, feel right, call the cops. One or more of America’s 60,000 slaves or their slave masters may be somewhere near you. Don’t look away. Look trouble or evil in the eye and do what you can.

If our religious observances or secular social consciences mean anything, this has got to be  part of it, doesn’t it?

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