A Daily Choice: Shelo Asani Aved Today

Yael Roberts
July 15, 2014
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Baruch atah HaShem, shelo asani aved. Traditional Jewish liturgy in the morning prayers includes the blessing “Blessed are you Lord, that you have not made me a slave.” It is one among many blessings in the morning prayers that have been worked and reworked to match society’s sensibilities. This blessing is particularly problematic today, because 700,000 to 2 million people are trafficked yearly, according to JCRC.org. That means that “a woman, man or child is recruited at home and moved to a distant place through deception, fraud or violence for the purpose of forced labor, slavery or servitude.” Of this horrific number of people who are trafficked yearly, some are Jewish. With their lives completely uprooted and nowhere to turn, these people must find it difficult to be grateful to God. One can only imagine how someone who is trafficked grapples with the inclusion of this difficult blessing in our liturgy.

Jews in the Holocaust faced a similar problem, and asked Rabbis if they should continue to say this blessing while enslaved in the concentration camps. The answer they received is that shelo asani aved should still be said, as it applies to spiritual enslavement, not physical enslavement. In this light, one blesses God for not making one spiritually or metaphysically enslaved.

New renditions of this blessing read: SheAsani ben/bat chorin: That you have made me a son/daughter of freedom. Yet can those of us who are blessedly not physically enslaved claim spiritual freedom? And can those of us who are sadly physically enslaved claim spiritual freedom either?

Rather, to me this blessing seems to be about spiritual slavery, but it does not claim, in my mind, that we are not enslaved. Instead, I believe this blessing states, Blessed are you God who has not made me a slave—you, God, have not made me a slave. The only one responsible for any type of spiritual enslavement is my self.

Who or what are we enslaved to? We can be chained and enslaved to multiple things and ideas. To technology, to patterns, to habits, to people, to substances. In this way, despite not being trafficked, we declare allegiance to those of our brethren whose lives are not as free. We too, are enslaved. We know only a taste of what it may mean to be trafficked or physically enslaved, and for this reason, we can have empathy for those who suffer.

But with this blessing, we do not talk only about a negative type of enslavement, but about a positive avdut, a service of God. Blessed are you God, we say, who has not made the decision for me to serve you. Each and every day, I am the one who makes myself a servant of God. This idea may also resonate with the blessing, shelo asani goy, you God have not made me into this Jewish nation. Each day, I must reawaken myself to the idea that I consciously decide each morning to serve God. By reframing this blessing, we defy the definition of slavery or trafficking, types of enslavement against one’s will. Service towards God, on the other hand, is something we can choose. In the morning blessings, we bless God as the one who gives the rooster knowledge to decipher between day and night, and also gives humans the potential to choose each and every day to choose to serve Him.

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Yael Roberts Yael Roberts graduated Stern College for Women in 2014, with a major in English Literature and a minor in Studio Art. This summer, she is participating in Tent: Museums, and working as a Arts Education Intern at BIMA at Brandeis. She is a 2014-2015 year program student at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. A printmaker and mixed media artist, she had her first solo show, "Correspondences," in January 2014 at Blackburn 20/20 in Manhattan. She was a Kressel Research Scholar for 2012-2013 and a 2013 artist-in-residence at the Contemporary Artists Center in Troy, NY.

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