Shaya Cohen -


Slavery – From Institutional Slavery to Personal Growth

Every relationship we have is unequal in some respect – whether we are talking about a teacher or a friend or a spouse or sibling. One person always holds more cards than does the other one. That inequality is not, in itself, a bad thing. Indeed, I think it is a feature more than a bug: our individual limitations mean that we need other people. Man is not meant to be alone. Any person, left in social isolation for even just a few days will start to slowly lose his or her mind, fermenting, curdling, and finally rotting.

Inequality, of course, means that we are not level – we learn from some, just as we can teach others. Financially the ties that bind are even tighter: wealth is defined in no small part by the ability to exchange money for goods and services. And many of our financial exchanges are not arms-length transactions at all – we integrate with our nuclear families, and we informally give and share with others in a social network that is defined by its relationships and may never even discuss money.

Our labor, then, is often not a simple exchange. My children help the family; in return I feed and house them, and my wife ensures they have clothes. We resist keeping score between parents and children, and, even more importantly, between my wife and myself. Relationships, even those that involve a lot of labor, are neither equal nor compensated in any measured or “minimum wage” sort of way.

The Torah talks of evil slavery, and good slavery, and I think the distinction is simple enough: evil slavery is unfree and dehumanized. Good slavery may not be free (though it is often time-limited), but it is predicated on a personal relationship. In personal relationships, people help one another – even people who are quite obviously unequal. Personal relationships, with people or with G-d, are necessary in order for us to be able to grow.

I think this is the Torah lesson about leaving Egypt. The institutional and national slavery to Egypt robbed the Jewish people of their ability even to think for themselves. The Exodus was about leaving that dehumanizing servitude behind, to make it possible to enter into a personal relationship with G-d.

History shows us the result: the Jewish people have grown and grown since we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and it is the result of ever-developing relationships. The disproportionate capabilities of mortal and limited man as compared to an immortal and all-powerful G-d seems almost irrelevant: when we connect with G-d (just as with man), it is an opportunity to connect, to better ourselves, to grow.

There are countless real-world implications of this lesson. For example, today we take losers and we lock them in prison. Very few people who serve time in prison become success stories, in no small part because institutions do not fix people: prisons can occupy their time, but they do not connect with people on a level that helps them change who they are. Change requires relationships. So while I loved my Ivy League university education, it was the relationships with professors and students that made the difference to my life, not the august institution itself. Institutional solutions for human problems almost always fail. Prisons succeed at locking people away, but they fail at helping the dehumanized inmates.

Can you imagine what could be if convicted criminals were offered the opportunity to better themselves through servitude (essentially trading room and board for labor) with a family? What if the money the state paid for prison time was paid to host families, essentially through a voucher system? I am thinking, I suppose, of something like a halfway home, with a sentence to serve (and reparations to be made), but with the chance for role models, rehabilitation, and an actual future.

Do you think we could advance pilot programs based on this approach, essentially foster-family relationships with convicts, giving them the chance to rebuild their lives on new foundations?

Comments are welcome!

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