Passover: Slavery, Freedom and Migration

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From the Sources is designed to facilitate holiday text study around issues of social justice. We invite you to
engage in the texts and use them in your community to teach and take action. Use From the Sources to:

  • Learn with others. Read through this text study together with a friend or a group of friends and discuss the issues it raises.
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יֶשׁ־שֶׁ֖בֶר בְּמִצְרָ֑יִם רְדוּ־שָׁ֙מָּה֙ וְשִׁבְרוּ־לָ֣נוּ מִשָּׁ֔ם וְנִחְיֶ֖ה וְלֹ֥א נָמֽוּת׃

There are rations to be had in Egypt. Go down and procure rations for us there, that we may live and not die." [JPS translation]

(י) וַיְהִ֥י רָעָ֖ב בָּאָ֑רֶץ וַיֵּ֨רֶד אַבְרָ֤ם מִצְרַ֙יְמָה֙ לָג֣וּר שָׁ֔ם כִּֽי־כָבֵ֥ד הָרָעָ֖ב בָּאָֽרֶץ׃

There was a famine in the land—aside from the previous famine that had occurred in the days of Abraham—and Isaac went to Avimelech, king of the Philistines, in Gerar.

At the end of Genesis, Jacob and his sons migrate to Egypt in search of food, and their sojourn there ultimately leads to the enslavement of the Israelites. Migration is also a central part of life in modern times. Most North American Jews have ancestral stories of flight from persecution or migration in search of economic opportunity. Violence and economic insecurity continue to drive millions of people all over the world to leave their countries of origin and travel into the unknown. For so many, the search for a better life quickly becomes a struggle for survival.

(ה) וְעָנִ֨יתָ וְאָמַרְתָּ֜ לִפְנֵ֣י ׀ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֗יךָ אֲרַמִּי֙ אֹבֵ֣ד אָבִ֔י וַיֵּ֣רֶד מִצְרַ֔יְמָה וַיָּ֥גָר שָׁ֖ם בִּמְתֵ֣י מְעָ֑ט וַֽיְהִי־שָׁ֕ם לְג֥וֹי גָּד֖וֹל עָצ֥וּם וָרָֽב׃ (ו) וַיָּרֵ֧עוּ אֹתָ֛נוּ הַמִּצְרִ֖ים וַיְעַנּ֑וּנוּ וַיִּתְּנ֥וּ עָלֵ֖ינוּ עֲבֹדָ֥ה קָשָֽׁה.

"My father was a fugitive Aramean; he went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. [JPS translation, edited for gender-neutrality]

Share a story from your family’s migration history. What caused them to leave their country of origin?

What challenges and opportunities did they encounter upon arriving to their new home? Liberation?

Why do you think the haggadah places so much emphasis on our remembering oppression along with liberation?

Causes of Migration

Today, the majority of the world’s migrant workers—an estimated 30 million people—occupy semi-skilled or unskilled positions in the labor force.

“Protecting Migrant Workers in a Globalized World,” Ryszard Cholewinski, Migration Information Source, March 2005,

In developed countries' economies, there tend to be more jobs available at the high and low ends of the labor market than in the middle. Available or unemployed national workers are unwilling to fill low-status jobs because of poor pay, dangerous conditions, and the existence of alternative welfare provisions. Given the absence of a willing domestic workforce, rich countries are increasingly looking outside their borders for low-skilled workers in agriculture, food-processing, construction, manufacturing, and low-wage services such as domestic work, home health care, and the sex sector. Migrant workers and irregular migrants from poorer countries have stepped in to fill the demand.

What does this text suggest are the reasons for migrant workers traveling to developed countries?

How do these reasons compare and contrast with the reasons for migration cited in the Introduction above?

Given the benefits of migrant workers for host countries, why do you think many of these countries restrict the number and rights of migrant workers?

Treatment of Migrant Workers

Migrant workers who enter host countries and stay illegally are particularly vulnerable—they are subject to exploitation in working conditions and rates of pay, as well as the threat of imprisonment or deportation.

“Decent Work and Poverty Reduction in the Global Economy,” International Labour Office, April 2000, p.21,

“[Migrant workers are] subjected to exploitation in recruitment and employment, to forced labour, to exclusion from social insurance and to the denial of their human rights. These include foreign women in the prostitution traffic, domestic workers deprived of their travel documents, bonded labour in plantations, construction workers in unsafe work and housed in deplorable and unsanitary conditions, and various sorts of undocumented foreign workers in clandestine and grossly underpaid jobs.”

Who are some migrant workers with whom you interact directly (e.g. domestic workers, restaurant delivery-workers, food service workers) or indirectly (e.g. agricultural workers)?

How does their status as migrant workers impact the way you interact with them?

What is to be done?

Beyond widespread ratification of the ICMW, there are many possible ways to protect the rights of migrant workers.

“Keep the Borders Open,” The Economist , 3 Jan 2008,

History has shown that immigration encourages prosperity. Tens of millions of Europeans who made it to the New World in the 19th and 20th centuries improved their lot, just as the near 40m foreign-born are doing in America today. Many migrants return home with new skills, savings, technology and bright ideas. Remittances to poor countries in 2006 were worth at least $260 billion—more, in many countries, than aid and foreign investment combined. Letting in migrants does vastly more good for the world's poor than stuffing any number of notes into Oxfam tins…Americans object to the presence of around 12m illegal migrant workers in a country with high rates of legal migration. But given the American economy's reliance on them, it is not just futile but also foolish to build taller fences to keep them out. Better for Congress to resume its efforts to bring such workers out of the shadows, by opening more routes for legal, perhaps temporary, migration, and an amnesty for long-standing, law-abiding workers already in the country. Politicians in rich countries should also be honest about, and quicker to raise spending to deal with the strains that immigrants place on public services.

What about this argument do you find compelling? What about it is unpersuasive?

In the context of Passover, how do you imagine the Egyptian public would have responded to an article like this written about the Israelites? How is that reaction similar to or different from what you know of some common American responses to migrant workers?

(יד) לֹא־תַעֲשֹׁ֥ק שָׂכִ֖יר עָנִ֣י וְאֶבְי֑וֹן מֵאַחֶ֕יךָ א֧וֹ מִגֵּרְךָ֛ אֲשֶׁ֥ר בְּאַרְצְךָ֖ בִּשְׁעָרֶֽיךָ׃ (טו) בְּיוֹמוֹ֩ תִתֵּ֨ן שְׂכָר֜וֹ וְֽלֹא־תָב֧וֹא עָלָ֣יו הַשֶּׁ֗מֶשׁ כִּ֤י עָנִי֙ ה֔וּא וְאֵלָ֕יו ה֥וּא נֹשֵׂ֖א אֶת־נַפְשׁ֑וֹ וְלֹֽא־יִקְרָ֤א עָלֶ֙יךָ֙ אֶל־יְהוָ֔ה וְהָיָ֥ה בְךָ֖ חֵֽטְא׃ (ס)
(14) You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. (15) You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it; else he will cry to the LORD against you and you will incur guilt.

What labor policy does the Torah propose for migrant workers?

What changes in American law and practice would be necessary to implement this kind of labor policy?

What might be the socio-economic and political repercussions of such changes?

How could you change the way you interact with migrant workers to put these values into practice?

Who is taking action?

Internationally, AJWS funds grassroots organizations that are working to protect the rights of migrant workers. In Burma, for example, AJWS funds the Yaung Chi Oo Workers Association (YCOWA). YCOWA was founded in 1999 by Burmese student activists and migrant workers to improve working and living conditions for the 100,000 Burmese migrant workers living near the Thailand-Burma border. Between 2002 and 2006, the YCOWA assisted nearly 1,400 workers in over 100 legal cases, helping them win remuneration from their employers for unfair labor practices. In the United States, many groups work on migrant workers’ rights. Domestic Workers United (DWU) is an organization of Caribbean, Latina and African nannies, housekeepers and elderly caregivers in New York that organizes workers to support fair labor standards and combat exploitation and oppression. DWU provides legal services to workers who have suffered abuse or violations of their rights on the job, and it continues to seek passage of a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in New York State.


God heard our plea…God freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with awesome powers, with signs and with wonders” (Deuteronomy 26:7-8). While God redeemed us from slavery, millions of migrant workers continue to face abuses in the United States and all around the world. The countries that host them, and are willing to exploit their labor without respecting their human rights, are dangerously close to emulating ancient Egypt. Fulfilling the promise of Passover for all people requires that we protect the stranger, particularly those in our midst. Next year, may we all be free.