If you had been alive in the decade before the Civil War and living in this country, you would have been bound by a law that is in direct conflict with a mitzvah that appears in this week’s Torah portion, Ki-Tetzei. The mitzvah is: “You shall not turn over to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you from his master. He shall live with you in any place he may choose among the settlements in your midst, wherever he pleases; you must not ill-treat him.” (Deuteronomy 23:16-17)
Of course, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 required Americans, even those in free states, to return all captured runaway slaves to their masters. This legislation was a major catalyst of the Civil War and seems to contradict the absolute Biblical affirmation of slavery so often cited by the slave states.
In studying this issue for Shabbat, I came upon a dvar-Torah written by an esteemed colleague, whose presentation of sources was infinitely helpful. On Shabbat morning, we’ll explore one in particular from Rambam, who gives the rationale for the Torah’s final phrase here, “you must not ill-treat him–lo tonenu“–in the Guide to the Perplexed. But what struck me most was my colleague’s concluding sentence. He wrote: “Rambam illuminates the universal moral aspect of this law, and shows us that it is still relevant for us today even though there are no ‘slaves’ per se in our society.”
If only that were true! Modern-day slavery and human trafficking persist to this day, around the world, and even in this country. It’s one of the gravest human rights violations in the Land of the Free, let alone anywhere. On Shabbat morning, we’ll explore some contemporary stories of slavery, hear the Torah’s and Rambam’s moral call, and consider what we might do to fight this evil.
Rabbi David Wise