Published by Truah, The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, 2012.
This week’s Torah portion is Parshat Bo. The portion tells the stories of the last three plagues suffered by the Egyptians—locusts, darkness and the killing of the firstborn.
During the Pesach seder, we remove drops of wine from our cups to remember the suffering of the Egyptians. During morning worship on Pesach, we recite Hallel, a series of psalms of praise and gratitude. Unlike on other festivals when full Hallel is recited, during the last days of Pesach, we recite half Hallel to diminish our joy in memory of the suffering of the Egyptians.
These diminishments remind us that freedom is bound up with suffering and we must remember the suffering of our oppressors as well as our own suffering.
During the months leading up to Pesach, let us prepare to remove symbolic drops from the cup of our freedom to remember those who suffer modern plagues.
Sex trafficking is a form of slavery. Indeed, all human trafficking including the trafficking of both children and adults is slavery. Political leaders debating whether torture is productive for disclosing valuable secrets are perpetrators of plagues. Keeping prisoners in solitary confinement for longer than the human psyche can bear is also a plague.
In Israel, there is suffering among African refugees seeking asylum who are plagued by mistreatment. There is suffering among Israeli citizens who lack the resources to live with dignity. And there is suffering among Palestinians who are brutalized by settlers who have a sense that they are fulfilling God’s will through their actions.
The Torah tells us that God hardened Pharoah’s heart. As we face our modern Pharoah’s, let us remember that they too are caught in the cycle of suffering. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichiv teaches that Moses was not timid when he asked God at the burning bush “why do you choose me?” Rather, Moses was reluctant because he saw that the Egyptians would suffer in order for the slaves to go free and Moses did not want to be the cause Egyptian suffering.
It was only when God said, “I’m not sending you, I’m going with you, I will be by your side all the way” that Moses asked, “who am I to take on this mission?” It was knowing that he would be in the direct presence of the divine during the Israelite journey to freedom that gave Moses pause.
After the Israelites committed the sin of building the golden calf, Moses pleaded with God to forgive the Israelites. A while later God and Moses were debating the fate of the Israelites and Moses said to God, “if you are going to destroy this people, then take my name out of your Book,” meaning the Torah.
May we have the courage to offer our names, reputations, time and donations to help free those who suffer under modern slavery and plagues. May their burdens be lightened by our efforts. May their suffering be abated. May the world move closer to freedom and peace for our people and all peoples. May we have the courage to stand up to our modern Pharoahs. May we remember that it is God who is hardening Pharoah’s heart, and may we have the vision and the courage to walk in the footsteps of Moses, and let us say, Amen.