Commentary for Va’eira

27 Dec

This week’s parshah contains both the initial confrontations between Moses and Pharaoh as well as the first seven on the ten plagues.  While the story of the Exodus has always been considered to be one of, if the single most important stories in the history of the Jewish People, many modern theologians and philosophers have become uncomfortable with the ten plagues due to the collective nature of the punishment.  Many Egyptians (probably even a majority of Egyptians) did not own Jewish slaves, just as many Americans in the antebellum South did not own slaves.  Surely not every Egyptian benefited from the various projects Pharaoh forced the Israelites to labor on.  And yet, every Egyptian suffers from the plagues.  Surely our all-powerful, all-knowing God knows who is innocent and who is guilty, and can tailor the plagues to only strike the guilty, so why are all Egyptians punished, regardless of their role in the enslavement and oppression of the Israelites?

 

The end of the Book of Judges contains a very disturbing incident in which, after a woman is brutally gang-raped to death, the Tribe of Benjamin refuses to prosecute the guilty parties.  When the armies of the rest of the tribes come to forcibly extradite the guilty, the army of Benjamin stands against them in an attempt to protect the people who committed this heinous crime.  After a series of battles, most of the Tribe of Benjamin, both soldiers and civilians, are killed.  In the particular town where the atrocity took place, every man and woman of marriageable age- in other words, all those old enough to know the difference between right and wrong- are put to the sword.  They are punished because they saw an atrocity and allowed it to happen.  They are punished because they made no effort to stand up and pursue justice.  They are punished because they chose to protect the guilty rather than to stand up for the innocent.

 

All of the Egyptians are struck with the plagues because, like the people of Benjamin, they all chose to do nothing and allow atrocities to happen. Over hundreds of years of slavery, only two midwives ever made an attempt to stop the injustice that was all around them.  In Ex. 1:22, Pharaoh commanded “all of his people” to assist in the slaughter of Israelite babies.  Surely not all of them personally murdered babies, but even those who sat back and did nothing become complicit in the crime because they did nothing to stop it.

 

This requirement to fight injustice and oppression does not rest solely with the majority, though.  Before the fourth plague, God tells Moses “I will set apart the region of Goshen, where My people dwell, so that no wild beasts shall be there (Ex. 8:18).”  Making this distinction here, before the fourth plague, implies that the Israelites were struck by the first three plagues, too.

 

The reason for this is that the Israelites have come to accept their slavery.  Despite crying out to God to save them, when Moses shows up and says that God has sent him to save them, they ignore him because they know that it would require facing new hardships. By not standing up for themselves and trying to take an active role in their own liberation, the Israelites are complicit in their own oppression and are therefore punished with the first three plagues.  The ten plagues teach us that it is the duty of all people everywhere to stand up against injustice and oppression, be it against themselves or others.  Justice is always a cause worth fighting for.

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