Vayeshev: the crime of selling a person

“Behold, a caravan of Ishmaelites came from Gilead, with their camels bearing spicery and balm and ladanum, going to carry it down to Egypt. And Judah said to his brothers, “what profit is it if we slay our brother and conceal his blood? Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him; for he is our brother, our flesh.’ And his brothers listened to him.
And there passed by Midianites, merchantmen; and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. And they brought Joseph into Egypt. And Reuben returned unto the pit; and, behold, Joseph was not in the pit; and he rent his clothes. And he returned unto his brethren, and said: ‘The child is not; and as for me, whither shall I go?’ (Gen 37:25-30)… And Joseph was brought down to Egypt; and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh’s, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him of the hand of the Ishmaelites, that had brought him down thither. (39:1)…[And Joseph said] For indeed I was stolen away out of the land of the Hebrews; and here also have I done nothing that they should put me into the dungeon.’ (40:15)

The first story of human trafficking is told here in sidra vayeshev, and sadly it is a story that resonates to this day in the lived experience of the six to eight hundred thousand people estimated to be trafficked across international boundaries each year, and the 20 – 30 million people who are currently estimated to be living in slavery.
Like many who are trafficked today, Joseph is young and vulnerable, he is (to be) sold off by family members, and while presumably sold for labour it is not impossible he could have been sold for sex (certainly Potiphar’s wife has expectations in this area). He finds himself at the mercy of a well organised people trafficking structure, sold through the agency of the Midianites to the Ishmaelites who go on to sell him in Egypt along with their other products. Today human trafficking is the third largest international crime industry (behind illegal drugs and arms trafficking). It reportedly generates a profit of over £21 billion every year of which £10 billion is made in industrialized countries. Human trafficking is big business. And it causes enormous suffering.
Bible begins by telling us that human beings are created in the image of the Divine, from which we understand the basic and absolute value of human beings. Just as God is indivisible and of infinite worth, so is humanity indivisible and of infinite worth. We might construct all kinds of models in our heads about class, ethnicity, gender, power, social status, geographical cultural and historical connections, but bible keeps reminding us of the one basic truth: human beings are one group, connected ultimately to the earth on which we live, connected deeply and irrevocably to each other.
The bible as a document is powerfully engaged with this idea, and with how it plays out in the power relationships that humans participate in, that shape our society. It knows how easy it is to abuse power, how simple to turn a blind eye to it happening in both the intimate details of our lives and in the macro environment in which we are live. It knows about the human tendency to construct realities that favour ourselves over others, to neglect or ignore what does not speak to our own self-interest or conform to our idea of reality. Bible provides the nudge, the spur to remind us that not only is there more to the world than our own experience, it repeatedly teaches us that there is an obligation on us to pay attention outside of our comfort zone, a requirement to see the world as God sees it – a fragile and beautiful place filled with fragile and beautiful creatures engaged in a process of improvement but simultaneously undermining and subverting that process out of ignorance or selfishness or thoughtlessness or greed.
We see ourselves in the texts; we recognise the themes and the motifs that play through the stories and we know that we are being prompted to respond.
So when we read the story of Joseph, defenceless in the pit after his brothers’ intervention, saved from being murdered but arguably paying the even greater price of being traded from group to group with no protection and no idea of what the end of his journey may be, powerless and frightened, a product not a person, about whom no one will care what happens – we have to pay attention and we have to respond. There are estimated to be between six and eight hundred thousand people having a similar experience ever year in our world. And we should care.
In the book of Exodus, in the legal code following the giving of the ten commandments and the covenant made between God and Israel, comes the instruction “And one who steals a person and sells them, or if a person be found in their possession (as merchandise), they shall surely be put to death. (Exodus 21:16). Deuteronomy repeats the command: “If a person be found stealing any of his brethren of the children of Israel, and he deal with him as a slave, and sell him; then that thief shall die; so shall you put away the evil from your midst.” (Deuteronomy 24:7). In the biblical world clearly people were bought and sold, seen as chattels to be profited from, and already the voice of the text is outlawing the behaviour. By the time of the Mishnah (2nd Century CE) (for e.g. Sanhedrin11:1) the death penalty for human trafficking is discussed and accepted – a mark of how seriously the crime is taken to be and this is continued in the Gemara (5th Century CE) (e.g. Sanhedrin 86a)
In the medieval period there are responsa again underlining the importance of challenging the prevalence of abducting and selling human beings – for example Maimonides (12th C) tells us that Torah views the kidnap of a person as the most serious form of theft that is strictly prohibited on pain of death under the Noachide code and in the eighth of the Ten Commandments, ( Laws of Theft 9:1-6) and also teaches that redeeming captives is more important than supporting the poor, because captives are in danger of their lives (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Matanot Aniyyim 8:10). Rabbi Joseph Colon (1420-1480) warns that a person who has the ability to save a trafficked person yet delays doing so is “like one who sheds blood.”… the responsa can be found in every century, in every place, demonstrating that the crime of trafficking human beings can equally be found in every century and in every place – including, sadly, our own.
So what should we do? Firstly, we should not ignore the issue, not assume that it is not happening because we have not noticed it, nor that it “wouldn’t happen” in our bit of the world. Secondly we should educate ourselves on the signs, so that we are alert to the possibility of trafficking. These can be found here: http://www.stopthetraffik.org/uk/page/spot-the-signs
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And we can also think through the ways we live and the choices we make – are the clothes or food we want to buy surprisingly cheap indicating that the makers/pickers are on low wages? Is there an ethical policy in place in the financial transactions we make? Are we sufficiently educated about the real cost, the real chain by which products come to us, the reality faced by people who find themselves in economic bondage to others?
The tragedy of human trafficking is that it hides in plain sight. Bible knew that and tried to give us the tools to see. We are in need of such tools even today. Let the words of Joseph speak to us again “For indeed I was stolen away out of the land of the Hebrews; and here also have I done nothing that they should put me into the dungeon.’ And remind us that the lack of freedom for those who are trafficked is real, a dungeon from which they cannot escape and a place where no meaning can be gleaned.

Anti Slavery Day – the trading and trafficking of people is flourishing in 2015

This coming Sunday sees Anti-Slavery Day, a reminder that slavery is alive and well, a major global business exploiting vulnerable people and causing untold misery. Whether for sexual exploitation, forced labour, or people trafficking, it’s estimated that 800,000 people are traded annually.

In the ancient world slavery was unremarkable, and Hebrew bible is concerned only to regulate fair treatment of slaves, a view further developed in the rabbinic codes and responsa. While one cannot say bible condemns slavery, it does not condone the abuse of power by one person over another, and in Exodus we read “one who steals a person and sells them… shall surely be put to death. (Exodus 21:16) Modern day slavery steals people and traffics them for profit.   Globally there are estimated to be 27 million people treated in this way. What are we doing to address the abuse of so many people?

Heschel wrote that “Judaism is forever engaged in a bitter battle against a deeply rooted belief in fatalism” and suggested that our natural human state is of inertia, rather than of actively confronting social, moral and spiritual wrongs. He taught Judaism wants us to emulate Abraham, not in terms of faith, but in terms of his not conforming when something was wrong, but instead to “keep the way of God by doing righteousness and justice” and possibly even more importantly, to instruct his household and his descendants to do the same (Genesis 18:19)

I recognise the inertia; when we see such a complex and horrible problem as modern slavery we simply cannot begin to comprehend it, relying on our politicians or various institutions to deal with it on our behalf. And I see that those to whom we have delegated responsibility are also overwhelmed, and so slavery and trafficking and exploitation of vulnerable people far from home is able to flourish. Even here, in the UK; even now in 2015.

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The biblical “people stealer” is still with us.  Why are we, the Jewish community, whose foundational texts these are, not doing more to stop people trafficking, forced labour, and the sexual exploitation of vulnerable people? We are commanded to protect the powerless. So let’s fight the inertia and act!

image from http://www.stopthetraffik.org/uk