Va’era 5779 – Does Complicit Equal Guilt

By: Alan Bach

The following refrain is from the 1982 song performed by Quarterflash. When I read this week’s parasha, Va’era, this song popped into my head.

I’m gonna swallow my tears
I’m gonna harden my heart
I’m gonna turn and leave you here

Anyone remember that one? It certainly received its fair share of radio play.  And it brought forth once again the notion the lessons of the Torah are timeless and adaptable to various situations.

This week we read about the first seven of the ten plagues. We read the words numerous times, “ואני אקשה את לב פרעה” – “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart”.  G-d commands Moses and Aaron to initiate each of the first seven of the ten plagues: turn the water to blood, frogs inhabit the land, lice infest the Egyptians, swarms of insects, cattle plague kills off the livestock, boils break out on man and beast, and torrential hail comes down on the land. And after each plague Pharaoh throws up his hands and says, “enough”. But G-d steps in and hardens Pharaoh’s heart. As soon as the plague goes away, Pharaoh changes his mind and does not free the Israelites.

Does G-d take joy in the suffering of the Egyptians? If G-d is benevolent and compassionate, why does he want to see them continue to suffer.

How do we resolve the continual inflection of pain upon a people because of the behavior of their ruler? We read in Chapter 9 verses 15 and 16, “I could have stretched forth My hand and stricken you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been effaced from the earth.  Nevertheless, I have spared you for this purpose: in order to show you My power, and in order that My fame may resound throughout the world.” G-d makes it clear that he has the power to end the suffering in a single action but deems it more important to use the ten plaques to prove his power to the entire world.

Throughout history we witness accounts of suffering at the hands of an unjust tyrant. Do we blame all Germans for the Holocaust? Is it wrong that all of Egypt except for the region of Goshen, the region where the Israelites lived were obliterated by the hail storm for the sake of proving the power of the Lord? Unfortunately, during any act of war, there are innocent civilians that suffer. How we deal with the suffering is what sets us apart.

During the Passover Seder, the custom of dipping your finger in a cup of wine and letting a drop fall to your plate began in the medieval times. The custom is not to rejoice in our eventual victory by recalling each of the plagues, but to slowly decrease our joy of the Israelites liberation while recalling the pain suffered by the Egyptians. The Chabad rabbis teach that reciting a prayer over a cup of wine allows us to ingest the words of the holiness of the barucha recited prior to drinking. Many adhere to the custom of everyone sharing from the same Kiddush cup of the one saying the blessing so that all ingest the words of holiness. During the recitation of the plagues we spill out a small portion of wine upon the calling out of each plague, so the wine left in the cup that we eventually consume is filled only with blessings.

How would things have changed if there was cable news during the time of Pharaoh? Imagine how the coverage of the seventh plague, hail, would be broadcast.

On CNN – An ancestor of Anderson Cooper would be standing outside with his heavy-duty rain slicker while being plopped on the head by the hail.

On MSNBC – The story line would center on how the hail storm has nothing to do with the plague initiated by G-d but rather is caused by global warming that is predicted to happen thousands of years in the future. An interesting aside, is this where the term “an act of G-d” originated?

On Fox News – The hail storm is nothing more than a conspiracy dreamed up by the Jews to place blame on Pharaoh and his loyal followers. The hail is not caused by the G-d of the Israelites, but by the magicians Aaron and Moses.

If there was cable news or some other form of mass communications could we assume the Egyptians would still have blindly followed the directive of Pharaoh? Would the outcome have been different during the enslavement of the Israelites? Today, are we complicit with the acts of our federal, state or local governments regardless of our personal views? Mass media and social networking are critical for a society to maintain freedom and ethical behavior. We know the treatment of the masses is very different in countries which practice strict forms of censorship. 

I admit at times I can become addicted to cable news, podcasts, newspapers and any other form of information available to me. During the month of December, I tried to not watch cable news, but did read the New York Times daily. I did feel happier wrapped in my cocoon of not knowing every detail of what was going on in our country, in Israel and the rest of the world. However, I now realize that ignorance does in fact make one complicit.

We as a people must continue to fight against acts of violence, oppression and discrimination. Without knowledge, we too become guilty by association. I hope one day distant in the future, people are not dipping their fingers in their wine glass to commemorate the pain and suffering of us or any other population of people.

Shabbat Shalom

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