The other night, while my hands were busy folding something like ten loads of laundry (just a regular wash day in our household), I occupied my mind by coming up with what I thought was a cute pun. I was thinking to myself that given the fact that I was slaving over all this laundry, my Hebrew name should be changed from Rachel Shifrah to Rachel Shifchah, shifchah being the biblical Hebrew word for what is politely referred to as a maidservant. What if there were a facebook quiz called “Which Biblical Shifchah Are You Most Like?” I wondered. Would I be most like Hagar? Or maybe I would be more like Bilhah or Zilpah. I was chuckling to myself and thinking I was oh, so clever.
Then I realized that I had made a very tasteless joke and that referring to myself as an indentured servant actually wasn’t funny at all. All my extended punning came to a sudden halt the moment I remembered an article I had recently read in the Palo Alto Weekly about the guys I had seen around town standing on street corners selling flats of strawberries. It turns out that the eved ivri, the indentured servant (the shifchah is the female counterpart to the eved ivri), rather than having disappeared with ancient times, is in fact alive and well and living in the Silicon Valley. At least in the Torah and Rabbinic literature there are laws governing the treatment of the eved ivri and providing for his liberty at the sabbatical and jubilee years. From what I read in the article in the local paper, it appears that the fruit sellers, smuggled in from Mexico and Central America by coyotes, are totally under the control of their keepers who take every penny of their earnings, make them live in squalid accomodations, and deny them even the most basic of decent working conditions.
I am not so naïve as to be unaware of the plight of illegal, undocumented immigrants to this country or of the enormous tragedy of human trafficking around the world. One would have to totally cut oneself off from today’s ubiquitous media to be ignorant of these issues. In fact, many of us have learned about them due to the tireless efforts of journalists like Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times. But to recognize that these issues are literally staring you in the face, standing there in broad daylight in the form of a lone fruit vendor on a corner in your upscale suburban neighborhood is a real shock. It is a wake up call of biblical proportions.
© 2009 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.