Just as we began our celebration of Pesach/Passover about three weeks ago . . . the festival celebrating our redemption from Egyptian slavery . . . over 270 school girls in Nigeria were abducted from their boarding school. The terrorist leader who organized this mass kidnapping declared that the girls would be sold into slavery.
These girls need to be found and returned to their homes. Even if they were to be found this minute, it will be too late to spare them the agony of recovery from trauma, but at least they will be back in the embrace of the families who love them and who made the commitment to educate them (not a given in Nigeria).
When we gather in our synagogues around the world this Shabbat, we will be reading and discussing the parashah/Torah portion Behar. It is a Torah reading that poses profound challenges to us, especially this week, as we wait from day to day for news of the abducted Nigerian school girls. For this passage of Leviticus lays out the ground rules for the indentured servitude of Israelites and the slavery of non-Israelites. We have no choice but to acknowledge that the institution of slavery was a common and morally neutral economic reality in the ancient middle east.
However, the Israelite owner of a non-Israelite slave was permitted this relationship with very specific parameters which required care for the humanity and vulnerability of the slave. Thus, as Richard Elliott Friedman writes in his commentary on this week's parashah:
None of us watching the situation of the abducted Nigerian school girls believe that their humanity and dignity are being respected right now. We shudder to think of what is being done to them.
There is a principle of Jewish law that compels us to be as proactive as possible in bringing these girls back to safety, the mitzvah/commandment of פדיון שבויים / pidyon shvuyim / redeeming the captives. There is some controversy about the application of this imperative for it's roots are in the historic reality of the kidnapping of Jews for ransom over the years. Can we, therefore, consider it a mitzvah to redeem captive Nigerian school girls? Based on the writings of the great halachist [scholar of Jewish law] Rambam/Maimonides, I would say "yes":
We may wish that the US law enforcement experts could have arrived earlier, but at least they are there. What can we do, those of us who are not law enforcement experts on the ground?
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.