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Torah: Bo – Why did Pharaoh hold on to the slaves for so long?

Torah: Bo – Why did Pharaoh hold on to the slaves for so long? For that matter, why did it take a war to free the slaves in the United States?

With the opening several month’s ago in D.C. of the African-American museum, I learned much about our nation’s history of slavery. Eli Whitney’s cotton gin of the early 19th century reduced the labor of removing seeds, which only increased the demand for slaves to grow and pick the cotton. By 1860 approximately one in three Southerners was a slave. Cotton was a major engine of the American economy. On the cusp of the Civil War, America produced two-thirds of the world’s cotton, our largest export that also supplied the needed material for the cloth factories of the north. Yes, treating people as objects for purchase was morally problematic, but much is overlooked or even distorted when personal benefit is at play. In the repeated words of the Torah, “A bribe blinds the eyes of the wise” (Deuteronomy 16:19; Exodus 23:8).

The Israelites built the massive cities of Pithom and Ramses. They supplied the labor to work the fields. They allowed Egypt to grow mighty. No wonder that Pharaoh and the Egyptians refused to let go. Immediate economic benefit obscures right and wrong.

Seeing the world through God’s eyes, the Torah teaches, is to see the dignity and equal worth of each person. The Torah emphasizes that our freedom from Egyptian bondage depended on God’s higher light and power: “It was with a mighty hand that the Lord brought us out from Egypt, the house of slavery, when Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go” (Exodus 13:14-15).

May we feel God’s power guiding us toward justice despite the obscuring benefits of personal comfort and gain.