This Parashah is very special. Last week, Parashat Shmot, was the Parashah of slavery, of oppression. The beautiful example of the midwives that we spoke about last week was an exception, as it usually was with the tzadikei umot haolam, the righteous in the nations that risked their lives to save Jews. It was always a risk in every generation in every place because they were a minority and they were going against the mainstream of their society. Next week, we will read Parashat Bo, the Parashah of the liberation, of redemption. This week we are in-between, Parashat Va’era is the Parashah of the fight for freedom, the struggle for redemption, the war against tyranny.
The pursue of freedom needs leaders. The ultimate leader in our story is G-d, but the visible ones were Moses and Aaron. The first task that many leaders have is to convince their people that freedom is possible, that it can be better. At the end of last week’s Parashah the Israelites have no faith; they are angry at Moses and believe that he will only make their situation worst. Nobody can gain real freedom without freeing first their mind. They have to want to be free, they have to believe that it is possible and it is worth fighting for.
That desire to be free should come together with a purpose, not freedom for the sake of freedom, but freedom in order to fulfil a vision. In the case of Moses, the message was clear: G-d has chosen us to build a society different from Egypt, a society based in moral laws equal to everyone, a society where people are important and not monuments, where everyone, including slaves, have rights and worth. A society of responsibility, of awareness, of empathy, where even the rulers are subject to G-d and not all-powerful.
Sadly, many struggles for freedom are accompanied by violence and suffering, usually of the people trying to be liberated, many times innocent people on the side of the oppressors too. No matter how do we judge the German citizens during the Nazi era, how much responsibility they had. We must be saddened by the death of thousands of German civilians during the Allied bombings that were necessary to defeat the Nazi government and destroy that big evil. In our Parashah the necessary violence are the plagues and the suffering civilians are the Egyptians.
The rabbis do ask the difficult question: Why did the Egyptians had to suffer because of the bad choices, of the evil choices of their ruler? The answer is because as a society we have the responsibility of constantly check our behaviour and correct whatever is not appropriate to our moral standards. The people of Egypt did not stand and demand a better treatment of the Israelites, they didn’t say anything when they were enslaved after they were supposed to be guests in their Land. The Egyptians didn’t say anything when they were not enslaved, but also were treated with extreme cruelty and unrealistic demands. No one raised their voice when the baby boys of Israel were thrown into the river and murdered. Therefore, they shared the destiny of their tyrant.
Next week it is commemorated in America the birthday of one of the liberators of our time, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He is remembered for his heroic stand against injustice and demand for civil rights for all. His courage to take on the establishment, the Pharaohs of his time, and change society for the better. He saw the injustices of his society and could not simply stand by and do nothing. He stood up, lent his voice and openly and willingly paid the price, including prison and ultimately his life. He inspired and continues to inspire many through his example. Dr. King once delivered a sermon at Temple of Israel of Hollywood, in which he compared many in his generation to the group of Israelites who, at the Red Sea and at various other points of crisis in the wilderness, did not want to return to the slavery of Egypt, but also lacked the courage to face the tough challenges that entering the Promised Land would demand of them. And he also described the problem of Pharaoh in distinctly spiritual terms. The slavery at Pharaoh’s hand was the result of his “reduction of persons to things. Throughout slavery, they
[the Israelites] were things to be used, rather than persons to be respected.”
G‑d was, during the Exodus and during the fight for civil rights, and He is today, on the side of freedom and human dignity. You cannot build a nation, however strong your police and army, by enslaving some for the benefit of others. History will turn against you, as it has against every tyranny known to mankind.
We must remember that we never will be entirely free until the last of the slaves has been released. Freedom is the natural state of the human beings, it is what enable us to fulfill the purpose for which we were created: To build a better World.