Parshat Vaera 5775

This d‘var Torah was originally published in The Pluralist of the Israel Religious Action Center for the week of January 12, 2015.

In this week’s Torah portion[1], the Egyptians and Israelites suffer the first three plagues: blood in the water, frogs on the land, and lice on the body. Then the Egyptians suffer four more plagues while the Israelites are spared. These are the plagues of wild animals invading the neighborhood, cattle disease, boils and hail. During next week’s portion, the Egyptians suffer the plagues of locusts, darkness and death of the first born while the Israelites are spared once again.

During the Passover Seder, we remove a small amount of wine or juice from our glass to remember the suffering of the Egyptians during the plagues. Some of us also set aside a time during the Seder to recall modern plagues. One modern plague is human sex trafficking in North America, Israel and around the world. In Northern Iraq, ISIL forces have murdered over 7000 Yezidi men and captured and enslaved over 7000 Yezidi women and girls. The Yezidi women and girls were given to ISIL soldiers as booty of war. The soldiers use these human beings as sex slaves. They rape, sell and trade girls from age 14 or 15 to mature women. Gang rapes are common and make shift slave markets are held from time to time to introduce new victims and sell and trade ongoing victims of this horrible human atrocity. ISIL forces have also been murdering and capturing Christians. Some Christian women are captured, chained and forced to convert to Islam, while others are forced to become sex slaves.[2]

As of this writing, over 10,000 Yezidis are trapped on Mount Sinjar in Northern Iraq where they face freezing weather with no shelter, little clothing and insufficient food and water.[3] For Yezidis, there appears to be no safe zone in Northern Iraq. As for Christians, ISIL forces require them to keep a symbol on their door identifying them for harassment, much as Jews were singled out by Germans during the Holocaust and forced to wear the yellow star.

The Yezidi calendar is in the year 6764—almost 1000 years older than our Jewish calendar. Yezidis are monotheists. They teach about Adam. They have a flood story. They accept Abraham. They call Moses a prophet. They call Jesus a prophet but not the messiah. They accept Mohammed. Yezidis are not Kurds, but Kurds descend from Yezidis. In summary, the Yezidis have borrowed from their own Middle Eastern roots as well as from their neighbors over the centuries, including Jews, Zoroastrians, Christians and Muslims.[4]

I recently attended a program at a local Jewish community center regarding the plight of the Yezidis and Christians in Northern Iraq. One of the Yezidi speakers had just returned from Israel where he spoke at the invitation of a number of Israeli social justice organizations. I am proud that our Jewish community demonstrates concern about the suffering of both Jews and others, some of whom we might call strangers. The Torah exhorts us 36 times to not mistreat the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. The Torah also teaches to not stand idly by the blood of our neighbor.[5] This teaching applies when we rescue battered women from their abusers in North American and Israel. It applies when Israelis act in Africa to relieve the suffering of former child slaves in Ghana or to fight the Ebola virus. It applies when we donate to IRAC to support over 300 vital legal actions a year. And it applies when we donate to IAHV, the only international NGO working on the ground to feed, cloth and rescue Yezidis from Mount Sinjar in Northern Iraq.[6]

The sages teach us to remove wine or juice from our cup during the Seder to remember the suffering of the Egyptians. How much more so must we also remember the suffering of fellow Jews.

In 2013, Women of the Wall won a court victory allowing all women to wear a tallit and read Torah at the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem. Following the victory, Anat Hoffman wrote in a column in the Huffington Post: “With our victory in court comes a responsibility to see that no voices are silenced and no communities are hurt in our struggle for freedom. … We must know that change is not easy for everyone and that the ultra-Orthodox community [who opposed the court decision] is not to be defamed or vilified in this process.”

Working for social justice is an endless endeavor. As Jews, we are free to decide which causes to support, but we are not free to stand on the sidelines of suffering. Rabbi Tarfon taught, “it is not upon you to complete the task, but neither are you free to abstain from it.”[7]

[1] Exodus 6:2 to 9:35.
[2] http://tinyurl.com/l5d8fdr.
[3] https://rebpam.com/social-justice/help-save-the-yezidis/.
[4] http://www.yezidis.org.
[5] Leviticus 19:16.
[6] https://rebpam.com/social-justice/help-save-the-yezidis/.
[7] Pirkei Avot 2:15. Rabbi Tarfon was a sage who lived during the first century of the Common Era. Frydman, Rabbi Pamela. Calling on God: Sacred Jewish Teachings for Seekers of All Faiths. (Arcata, California: Wild Earth Press, 2012), pp. 87-88.

Rabbi Pamela Frydman was the founding rabbi of Or Shalom Jewish Community in San Francisco and Director of the Holocaust Education Project for the Academy for Jewish Religion, California. Presently she serves as International Co-Chair of Rabbis for Women of the Wall and on the organizing committee of Beyond Silence, a campaign to raise consciousness about child sexual abuse in the Northern California Jewish community. She was a founding leader in Shalom Bayit, Jewish Women Working to End Domestic Violence and she continues to serve on Shalom Bayit’s Rabbinic Advisory Council. She is the author of Calling on God, Sacred Jewish Teachings for Seekers of All Faiths and she is working on a cookbook and a book on the Holocaust.