The past two week’s torah portions Parshat Va-eira, and Parshat Bo speak of the ten plagues that G-d brought down upon Egypt in order to free the people of Israel. The story of freeing the Jews from Egypt is the story that we tell on the holiday of Passover. G-d speaks directly with Moses instructing him to ask Pharoah to “Let my people go that they may worship me.” G-d shows his power through the ten plagues (blood, frogs, lice, insects, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and death of the first born) that are brought upon the land of Egypt. Whether you know the story from the movie, “The Prince of Egypt”, or the text itself the idea is the same; the Jewish people were enslaved and being mistreated, and Moses stood up to Pharoah and threatened him to “let my people go” or there would be consequences brought to the Egyptians. Moses acts as a leader, and a messenger of G-d’s divine power.
And say to him, " יהוח the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you (Pharoah) to say, 'Let My people go that they may worship Me in the wilderness.' (Exodus 7:16)
This past Friday I was at Shabbat dinner where the conversation turned into an intense debate. The topic: what do we do about countries without democratic governments. Countries whose citizens may be suffering human rights violations, governments that operate in a way in which information is censored, and where the government has the power, vs. the people.
The main question: whose job is it to help? 'Fix' their problems? Who decides if the way in which they govern is right or wrong? Is the difference simply ideological, or do we have a responsibility to do something? In theory, the United States votes leaders into power who represent the majority of people’s opinions to make decisions in our government. Individuals have a say and a sense of empowerment. Ultimately our leaders are responsible to the people. Whereas in many nations around the world, including many developing nations, this is not the case, leaders tell their citizens what they can and cannot do; how they live, what knowledge they have access to, etc.
In Egypt pharaoh was mistreating a group of people, and God stepped in. In this case, the solution was to move the Jewish people (who were enslaved) out of the land of Egypt. The question that kept arising in our debate was: is it the job of the U.S. to intervene? Do we act as God and tell other countries how to act in the ‘right way’ when we see injustice? Do we rescue refugees? Or, do we say 'not our problem', and turn a blind eye? What is our role? Do we have a larger global responsibility to save people whose own countries and government systems are not protecting its’ citizens? How do we take the lessons we learn from Parashat Va-eira and Bo into our current struggles of international politics?
The United States has power and ability, does this mean are at liberty to act in a God like fashion, impose our own democratic views onto others? Or, do we as God did act through creating leaders like Moses in countries who may be in need of assistance? God didn’t strike without clearly outlining to Pharoah, the leader of the Egyptians about what would happen. God used Moses as a leader, and instructed him how to stand up to the authority of Pharoah and explain the consequences if the Jewish people weren’t treated in the way they should be. Maybe the solution is that we build leadership among our neighbors citizens so that they have the sense of empowerment that Moses did.
We read of so many instances of injustice, and often are saddened and unsure of what we can do to help. The task of what to do may be overwhelming, and in turn, we do nothing but watch as more tragedies unfold. In many ways, we are useless when it comes to intervening in others’ lands. Not our place, against international laws, etc. Instead, we do very little, causing the global community a disservice by turning a blind eye. It’s not an easy battle but we cannot do nothing because the task itself is overwhelming. If we ourselves can not do the activist work needed, there are organizations who are building leaders, and providing aid that are in need of funding. Maybe Torah shows us that our responsibility is not to stand idly by when we see injustice, but to step in, take charge, and build power. We can become informed leaders, speak out, and fund those already doing this work.
As Martin Luther King Jr. day approaches we are reminded of how great leaders have brought about change in this country. May we all strive to be leaders in our own lives, regardless of how large the task, and may we find ways to help others in our global community to empower themselves.
Recent materials/ organizations inspiring this reflection…..
American Jewish World Service
There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice through Jewish Law and Tradition by: Rabbi Jill Jacobs
A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide by: Samantha Powers
Little Bee by: Chris Cleave