Here is Rabbi Devorah Jacobson’s powerful d’var Torah, connecting the story of Joseph with the scourge of modern-day human trafficking, delivered at the JCA this past Shabbat to mark Human Rights Shabbat.
Human Right Shabbat
D’var Torah
Rabbi Devorah Jacobson

This Shabbat is special in a number of ways. It is after all, Shabbat VaYeshev, the Shabbat that signals that Chanukah, with its grand spiritual themes and gastronomic wonders, is almost upon us.

In addition, for me, its an anniversary of sorts. For it was exactly 30 years ago that I stood before my class of colleagues and teachers in rabbinical school and delivered the dvar torah on this same parasha. You see, each week it was someone else’s turn, a requirement to graduate that we all had to endure. So I’m grateful to the Tikkun Olam committee for the invitation to try my hand at it again, hopefully with a little less anxiety and self doubt, and a bit of perspective achieved from the intervening years.

This Shabbat has also been designated by Rabbis for Human Rights as Human Rights Shabbat. For the last 5 years, more than 100 synagogues communities in North America, including our own, have been designating this Shabbat as a specific time to learn and talk about urgent moral issues of our day. It is an opportunity to for us to rededicate ourselves to the compelling ethical values found in our tradition, especially the value of kvod ha-briyot – human dignity –and to pledge ourselves to promote these universal values in our synagogue, schools and community. It is a time when we declare that as Jews, our passion for justice requires us to stay vigilant about human rights here and around the world.

This year, the particular focus for Human Rights Shabbat is on the modern global slave trade and specifically human trafficking. Not very uplifting I know, not exactly what you came for.

But then again, a review of the parasha we read today is not from the genre of uplift either. Actually, it’s a painful text to read, is it not? Its filled with more of what Genesis has already given us in full measure: heavy doses of conniving and deception and dysfunctional family systems. Moreover, it is filled with suffering. After all, we encounter Jacob in the midst of deep spiritual crisis, what one commentator described as “Jacob’s spiritual winter.” An old man now, his children present him with the bloodied tunic of his favored son Joseph, and we become witnesses to his shattered heart and his all consuming grief. Jacob’s suffering points to what is yet to come in the parasha: the plummeting of Joseph and later his family into dangerous places, the pit, the prison cell, an ultimately the descent into Mitzrayim itself – all those dark narrow places from which safe escape seems nearly impossible, where hope seems to be desperately missing.

Victims of human trafficking descend as well into a deep, dark Mitzrayim, where escape seems next to impossible and hope is elusive. Victims of human trafficking include anyone forced or coerced into involuntary servitude, debt bondage or slavery, often recruited and transported over long distances, with passports seized and subjected to exploitation and abuse. Some current examples include domestic workers coerced and transported from one country to another and held in homes against their will, laborers working for US govt. contractors and subcontractors, promised employment only to be subjected to various forms of exploitation, or farm workers like those working in the tomato industry in Florida, forced to work against their will in inhumane conditions for little to no wages. Marcia Black spoke eloquently to our community last year on this specific issue and I know our Tikkun Olam committee has specific plans for organized actions against trafficking. From what I’ve been reading, every year human traffickers generate billions of dollars in profits by victimizing millions of people around the world. Human trafficking is considered to be one of the fastest growing criminal industries in the world.

The aspect I’ll focus on today is about another painful side of human trafficking …it’s about the plight of girls and women, living in some of the poorest and most desperate areas in the world, who are coerced, kidnapped and deceived into prostitution and sexual slavery.

You may have read or seen the recent book and PBS series Half the Sky by Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. It is a stirring book, and in many ways, a passionate call to arms. Kristof and WuDunn along with others who write on this subject estimate that there are between 3 – 4 million women and girls and a very small number of boys worldwide who can be considered as “enslaved” in the sex trade, who are the property of another person and in many cases can be killed by their owner with impunity. Their book is filled with stories of women and girls that they met, as they journeyed through parts of Africa and Asia to meet victims of sexual violence and human trafficking, to talk with them about the oppression they have lived with because of their gender and their poverty.

I don’t know about you, but for me the stories of sex trafficking and forced prostitution are stories that I can barely endure. The sheer cruelty, the physical brutality, the calculated efforts to break the spirit of young innocents through humiliation, starvation and violence, is overwhelming.

So while I have opted not to tell some of the personal stories that moved me to tears in Half the Sky, I wanted to at least summarize 4 points that Kristof and WuDunn underscore in their book, and what Rabbis for Human Rights wants to emphasize on this Shabbat as well:
1) That despite all that they have faced, some girls and women who receive a little help and under certain conditions have been able to transform their lives
2) That these issues, while tenacious and complex, need not leave us in total despair because there are growing opportunities for us all to take action
3) That while human trafficking and gender violence has not registered high on the global agenda, there is a growing international movement that is focusing on women’s rights as human rights and on necessary reforms and legislation;
4) And that this movement is also focusing on women’s power as economic catalysts. As one UNICEF report argues, “Helping women who are living in extreme poverty to become self-sufficient yields a double dividend: by elevating not only the women but also their children and their communities.”

If you read or see Half the Sky, you will learn of terrific organizations around the world that are making a difference. Like one started by an unusual high school girl in New Jersey named Jordana. As she got increasingly immersed in the issues of human trafficking and gender inequality throughout the world, she saw that education was a critical part of the solution. As she said, “Girls who are denied access to education are more likely to be trapped in a cycle of poverty and disease, forced into child marriage and prostitution, or become victims of sex trafficking…”
With great passion and tenacity, Jordana started an organization called Girls Learn International, to support schools including the repair of dilapidated buildings for girls in poor countries. They have grown to more than 20 high school chapters and are increasing their presence on college campuses.

In addition, The RHR website contains many concrete action projects and invaluable information and Jewish source material that enables us as individuals and as a community of concern to get involved and become more informed. Another organization that has become an important part of my life is called Dining for Women. With the help of friends, my partner Margaret and I started an Amherst chapter of DFW almost 2 years ago. We’d be happy to talk with you more about it later if you’d like. Once a month, a group of us comes together over a potluck meal at someone’s home to learn about the lives and the challenges faced by women and girls living in some of the poorest regions of the world facing gender oppression and violence. We pool money that we might have spent eating out and with over 350 chapters doing the same, in North America and beyond, we are raising collectively over $50,000 per month. The monies fund carefully selected projects that empower women and girls by providing them with essential healthcare, microloans, literacy, vocational and leadership training. Many of our monthly projects are focused specifically on devising effective preventive strategies and alternatives for girls and women kidnapped and trafficked from one country into another, like the Anchal project in rural India or Lotus Outreach in Cambodia.

Tonight we will gather to light the first light of Chanukah. Each night we will light more light. For our tradition is to follow the school of Hillel who taught us long ago, “In matters of holiness, we increase and do not decrease.” (Ma-aleen ba-kodesh v’ayn moreedim)

As we huddle together this Shabbat, we read our ancient stories out loud, even when they are filled with suffering. We tell our contemporary stories too, of places where human rights are violated, of places where human beings face so much cruelty. We remind each other of our vast privilege and as we do, we say, that in matters of holiness, it is our task as Jews to bring more light into the world, more dignity, more hope.

As we light our lights tonight , let us consider lighting on behalf of those whose voices have been muffled or silenced, for those who fear for their lives to tell their stories, for those who struggle to hold on to hope and dignity and who deserve so much more in life because they too are created in God’s image.

And finally, on this holiday of rededication, let us rededicate our spirits.