Shabbat Shalom with a Heart-Healthy Dose of Torah – Va-eira

Wednesdays provide me with a unique opportunity to frame my thoughts on the weekly Torah portion. I get to speak with our Religious School students and share an idea or two that can be gleaned from the text. This week, as I was preparing for events surrounding Dr. King’s birthday, I had to also wrestle with the plagues brought upon Egypt. At the same time, we are struggling with the acts of terror In France and the nightmarish butchery perpetrated by ISIS and Boko Haram. Of course, what screams loudest from this portion are the plagues that begin to fall upon Egypt, as Pharaoh refuses to heed the call to free Israel from bondage and servitude.


I am just not sure how much destruction one can endure and still be positive. It is with some serendipity (if there really is such a thing) that I am currently reading Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search For Meaning.” He chronicled his tenure as an inmate at Auschwitz, and as a neurologist, he learned that one’s outlook to the future had a lot to say about his chances of survival. At one point he described a horrific and obstacle-filled march into the fields for work, and reflected on a conversation in which one inmate expressed the hope that his wife was having an easier time. He proclaimed that the ultimate joy and hope for survivability was love. “The salvation of man is through love and in love.” If there ever was a time that I needed to read those words … even from a twisted point of reference (Auschwitz), now is that time.

I have always struggled with the storyline depicting all of Egypt suffering at the hands of an arrogant and vindictive Pharaoh. He made the edict to enslave all Israel, it wasn’t made for him. Further, as the plagues began to descend upon Egypt, Pharaoh became even more deeply rooted in the decision not to free Israel. The people suffered.

What did the average Egyptian do to warrant universal suffering from the plagues? On the one hand, we know all too well, that the deeds of a leader impact the whole organization. When war is declared, each one of us is a combatant in the eyes of the enemy. So, Egypt suffered. That would be all well and neatly packaged, except that next week, we will watch as Moses tells Pharaoh that even while Pharaoh will not want Israel to go, the Egyptian people will come before Moses to demand it. Yes, this is a nuanced text, but this is the first time in the discourse with Pharaoh, that Moses refers to the will of the Egyptians. They suffered, yet Moses knew that the Egyptians would rise up. In the end, Moses and God rely on the Egyptians to make the decision to force the expulsion of Israel from servitude: it was within their power to make this change happen. Of course, we have to ask, “If they had that power all along, why did they not use it sooner?”

A lesson that screams off of the page is really quite simple, and Elie Wiesel put it best, “The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference.” Most Egyptians did not love or hate Israel. They did not read of the slavery in the newspaper, and there were no political pundits exposing the nightmare on the television. Yet, how could one exist in the area, and not see what was happening? The people saw, and did nothing … nothing … until it affected their world. They were indifferent until it affected them. When they lost water to drink, when their bodies were covered in boils, when it became too dark to see, and then … when their first born died. Slavery was not a crime, until they had to pay a price for it. People just didn’t care.

Similarly, as I watched the videos taken of nearby residents being forced to tour Auschwitz after the war, I was shocked to see people who lived on the other side of the fence claiming to have no idea it was happening … with genuine looks of horror on their faces. They had no idea, but how could they have no idea? We knew in the United States … how could they not know? God heard the cries of the Israelite slaves of Egypt. How could Egypt have not known? The plagues happened because no one wanted to get involved. The devastation Europe experienced happened because no one wanted to get involved. Elie Wiesel taught us, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” We have to care enough to feel for our neighbor …. Feel and care enough to get involved.

Martin Buber related the story of how Rabbi Moshe Lev learned all about love from two drunks in a bar. One drunk said to the other, “Do you love me?” The other answered, “Of course.” The first asked again, “Do you really love me?” The second responded, “Yes, I really love you.” Then the first said, “If you really loved me you would know what I need and what ails me. But, you don’t know what I need or what ails me.” The second sat silently. Moshe Lev learned, “To love your neighbor is to know what he needs.”

Today, France is no longer silent. ISIS just had its first battle with US troops and withdrew. Boko Haram just completed yet its next massacre. We need to do more. The fact that these horrors are not in our back yard cannot allow us to be indifferent. Left unchecked, they will be in our back yard. This is not a slam on Islam or a blanket support for Judaism. This is a call for righteousness, the very same righteousness that bring so many Jews, Muslims, Christians … all people of faith to the altar of love. 

Frankl was right. It really is all about loving and being in love. To love one has to care … care deeply … so deeply that the plight of one we love is our plight. The truth be told, what threatens part of the world threatens all of the world. Terrorism is not something that happens only somewhere else, and those who suffer are someone’s children no different to their parents than the children we hold in our hearts and our hands.

Let’s start paying more attention to what our neighbors need … let’s show each other some love.

Shabbat Shalom.