Shabbat Message for January 15
January 15, 2016 | Roz Blanck
A Message from Marcie Orley, Past President of Women’s Philanthropy and National Women’s Philanthropy Board Member, as written in this week’s National Women’s Philanthropy Shabbat message…
In Parashat Bo, the final three plagues are inflicted upon the Egyptians: locusts, darkness and, finally, the death of the Egyptian firstborn. The Israelites are finally allowed to leave Egypt, then commanded to remember and observe Passover.
As I write this Shabbat message I am on an airplane returning from a vacation with my family in Mexico. I will not mention the specific location so as not to disparage an otherwise very lovely place, but suffice it to say that I found it incredibly apt to find myself reading about the final three plagues following this experience. I have no idea why G-d did not choose to afflict the Egyptians with what I had in Mexico. It definitely seemed much worse than, for instance, darkness. Had the Egyptians gotten the particular plague that afflicted us, that tenth plague might have been rendered unnecessary. Just saying.
The story told in the parsha is very familiar to all of us, and the observance of the seder is commanded in Bo, where we are told explicitly to “[r]emember this day, on which you went free from Egypt, the house of bondage, how the Lord freed you from it with a mighty hand,” (Ex. 13:3) and to transmit this story to our children. The recitation of the plagues is the centerpiece of our seders; we sing while we take perfunctory drops of wine out of our cups, so that our celebration is tempered by the memory of the suffering of the Egyptians.
While, at least at our seder, this isn’t something that we really dwell upon, the suffering of all of the Egyptians is one of the most important messages we are given, one that tells us a great deal about our own responsibilities. It is notable, and disturbing, that the plagues, including the death of the firstborn, were inflicted on all of the Egyptians, regardless of their station in life or personal culpability in enslaving the Israelites. The silence of the Egyptian population in the face of injustice implicated each of them. This sends a very clear message about our collective responsibility for injustice in our midst: We cannot remember what G-d did for us and ignore the suffering of others. Bo tells us that we will be held accountable for either active participation or passive acceptance.
The commandment of collective memory in Bo to recall our own redemption is the source of our collective responsibility to redeem all of those who may be enslaved and in despair. This year, we witnessed an unprecedented and heartbreaking movement of refugees all over the world, particularly from Syria. Many of our Federations make a yearly allocation to JFNA’s National Federation/Agency Alliance, which I am privileged to chair. One of the nine national agencies supported by the Alliance is HIAS, formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which helps protect refugees all over the world and advocates on their behalf. We must remember how we were freed from Egypt, how many of our own families arrived in this country as refugees also fleeing terror. We are compelled by our own history, and commanded in Bo, to speak out on behalf of those fleeing in fear.
The Egyptians were collectively punished for slavery because in a society based on slavery, everyone received the economic benefit, regardless of whether they participated.
I recently read the New York Times bestseller Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It is a memoir written in the form of a letter to the author’s young son, and it is a profound, compelling and ultimately very bleak account of what it is to be a black man in America. Reading Bo after reading this book gave me the amazing experience that text study often brings—each year, as we bring new experiences and understanding to the text, the same story is never the same. I understand how fortunate I have been in my life, and how that good fortune brings with it the responsibility to make a difference, in my community and in the world. However, I rarely think about the extent to which my good fortune stems from being a recipient of privilege in a society where, despite undeniable progress, opportunity remains unequal.
Bo speaks very strongly to who we are as a people, our responsibility to tell our own story to the next generation, and our responsibility as Jewish leaders to be a voice against injustice and suffering. There is a famous quote from Hillel that I believe relates closely to the message of Bo: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me. But if I am only for myself, who am I? And if not now, when?” (Pirkei Avot 1:14) Our mandate as Jews to perform tikkun olam is both particular and universal, and the lesson of Bo for us as Jewish leaders is that our narrative—the one we are commanded to pass on to the next generation—is that we were redeemed and we cannot shirk our own responsibility to redeem others.
Marcie Hermelin Orley
Fifth Year NWP Board Member
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