ברוך אתה ה' אלהינו מלך עולם שלא עשני עבד
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has not made me a slave.
In 1945, the Conservative Movement changed the nusach of this blessing (and a few others that we recite each morning) to the positive form: Blessed are You, Lord our God, who has made me a free person. This was the only version that I ever recited until I met children who were rescued from slavery while I was on an American Jewish World Service service learning trip to Ghana.
I spent an afternoon at a compound that houses children immediately after they are rescued from their slave masters. It was built by the NGO Challenging Heights and hidden away in the jungle. Though we met with the social workers and house mothers who work with the children at the very beginning of their rehabilitation process, I don't remember a word that they said. I don't remember what they looked like or the amount of time that we met with them. The only thing that I can remember (and with amazing clarity) is the way that the gorgeous faces of the children belied the torture that their bodies and souls had sustained. As we shook hands and shared smiles and broken greetings, the open sores on the backs of their heads and their damaged spines conveyed the horror through which they lived. Though the despondency in their eyes was heartbreaking, there was an energy among the kids that to a clueless outsider, felt like a confusing mix of anger, restlessness, and hope. Until that moment, for me, slavery was an abstraction, a closed historical chapter. I felt a deep shame for that luxury.
As imaginations tend to do, mine conjured up the scenarios of their lives, even though I knew I could not envision anything nearly as grotesque as the reality. I could not hold my tears back as I watched the tiny, calloused fingers of the six year old boy gently rub the white skin of my arms, clearly astounded by its incongruity with our surroundings. He just sat with me, rubbing my arms and staring at me, never once returning my teary smile. I could feel the soft fingers of my own sons reflexively playing with my hair and my arms as we talked or cuddled in bed. I never wanted to hold my children so tightly; I needed them to save me from an unbearable sadness. I was so relieved when a twelve year old yelled, "Futball! America against Ghana."
On a different day, I went down to the port to see the fishing boats. The bustling market meets the seashore in an explosion of the senses. Look left and you gaze into the magnificent sea. You are overwhelmed by the fishing boats bathed in striking colors. Look right and there are women smoking freshly caught fish, street vendors peddling their wares, hawkers balancing baskets of candy and chips as they weave in between people, and all around you, people are engaged in friendly banter. The sounds are frenzied as they drown out the lullaby of the sea. At a certain point, I walked onto the sand and looked into the sea, and everything around me seemed to stop. The sight of so many boats full of children scurrying about while working the day's catch was enough to silence the noise around me. Right in front of the bustle of thousands, in broad daylight, each and every day, are child slaves, working against their will, beaten and tortured as their ten year old bodies give in to fourteen hour days. Only days before the kids dribbled the soccer ball around us like we were statues that day in the jungle, they were trapped on such boats. It was impossible to imagine.
One morning during my time in Ghana, I woke up and it was difficult to see colors. My soul felt hollow, as if it had been completely emptied like a balloon shrinking from a tiny puncture. As I began my morning prayers, I found myself saying the original version of the blessing for the first time in my life: Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who did not make me a slave. This I could say because I understood that it was true: I was not a slave. I could not, however, thank God for making me free because I suddenly realized that I was not. Is one free when thousands upon thousands of children greet each morning as slaves? Is one really free when young girls are drugged and sold and trafficked again as sex workers?
We eat the bread of affliction not as a celebration of our freedom but as an act of solidarity with those still longing for their own, shackled by the terror fomented by slave-masters who still corrupt our lands. We eat the bread of affliction because we must ingest an antidote to the indifference that blossoms when we are deluded into thinking that we are free.
Let us not wait for God to rescue those living in darkness. This Passover may we reaffirm our commitment to hearing their cries and support the institutions working tirelessly to save them.