Recently, I have been studying the story of the 10 plagues. Right now in the Torah the Israelites are being enslaved by the Egyptians, and they have been enslaved by them for about 400 years. In a moment, we’re going to read from the very beginning of the Torah portion about how the Israelites cried out to God in their pain, asking God to free them from slavery. Later on in my Torah portion, God brings the first seven of ten plagues onto the Egyptians. God is about to enforce 7 painful plagues on Egypt, and Pharaoh has the power to prevent his nation from experiencing pain by freeing the Israelites, but he decides not to. After 400 years of causing pain, the Egyptians are about to experience some of the Israelites’ pain. While I was reading this parsha, I thought, “Do the Egyptians deserve all of this pain?” I would appreciate it if you thought about this question as I read my torah portion, and we will discuss this question later.
Earlier I asked the question, “do the Egyptians deserve this pain?” At first I thought they didn’t, but then I realized that the Egyptians were the ones who were whipping the Israelites, and if all of the Egyptians stopped hurting them, then they wouldn’t be slaves anymore. It seems like the Egyptians were complicit. And if they all refused to comply with the orders they were given – maybe by striking? – then slavery would end. As I thought about it more, I think the Egyptians do deserve to experience the plagues because they served as taskmasters over the Israelites. Like this midrash from Midrash Tanchuma states:
|“And the Egyptians embittered their lives with harsh labor…and in all kinds of work in the fields.” (Exodus 1:14). What does it mean, “in all kinds of work in the fields”? After finishing their work laying bricks, the Israelites would return to their homes to rest. Then an Egyptian would come and say, “Go out and gather greens for me in the garden patch,” “Split this log for me,” “Fill this water barrel for me from the river.” (Midrash Tanhuma, Parshat Vayetze, Section 9:)
The Egyptians are giving the Israelites all kinds of work, even beyond what they’re forced to do during the day, and not giving them any time to rest. It’s unjust to not give someone time to be with their family, and everyone should be able to have a break in the evenings and weekends. So they are making an active choice to make the experience of slavery even worse for the Israelites.
However, the Egyptians don’t have any power to end slavery itself – the only person who can is Pharaoh. But when you look at each plague, most of them cause the Egyptians far more suffering than Pharaoh himself, who is safe in his palace and shielded from the impact.
For example, the first plague – turning the water of the Nile river into blood – directly impacts the Egyptian people, because this is their main source of drinking water and they could die without it. But the blood does not impact Pharaoh that much because he probably has lots of clean drinking water in his palace. The same is true for the plagues of wild beasts and hail, which damages their homes and the land that they farm, but don’t affect Pharaoh, who is safe in his palace. Other plagues, like skin disease, probably impact everyone (Pharaoh included) because it was contagious.
Even though Moses and Aaron are the ones who are trying to punish Pharaoh for his mistakes, Pharaoh has the power to stop these plagues, but he decides not to. And why would he, he’s not even the one that is suffering! Pharaoh is showing that he doesn’t care about his people, even though he probably should. So this leaves God no choice, but to make the plagues so horrific that Pharaoh has to let the Jews go.
So here’s where we end up: On one hand, the Egyptians don’t deserve all of this pain, because they don’t actually have the power to end slavery for the Israelites. On the other hand, they are complicit in keeping the pain of slavery going. So what do we do now?
Here’s what I think: Most of the time, people only act in the right if they can benefit. And in our story, unfortunately, there were not enough Egyptians who felt sympathetic toward the Israelites, and they didn’t think their lives would improve if the Israelites went free. In fact, they probably knew that their lives would get WORSE if the Israelites went free, because then they’d have to do all of the work!
Everybody acts like this in some way, every day of their lives – we’re all human, so we act in our own self-interest rather than taking a risk or making a sacrifice for the good of other people. Sometimes, what we have to do is just take a step back and see how we can make a small change that will push back against injustice.
For me, one way I’m trying to push back against some of the injustice that is happening in our country right now and not be complicit is to work in support of refugees.
Our story as a Jewish people who have been refugees many times throughout our history inspired me to learn more about the refugee crisis today for my tzedek project. The Jewish people know what it is like to be treated as nothing, just like the ancient Israelites were. Pharaoh never gave us the chance to live a real life. We were slaves, we had nothing. What is happening to these refugees, echo some of the darkest moments in our own history. We were all once refugees.
The definition of a refugee is someone who is unable to return to their homeland because of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. To me that fits a perfect definition of what the Jews were going through. That is also what the Syrian refugees are going through today. Currently we have not been helping the refugees. But In the early 1980s the acceptance rate for refugees was around 220,000, but in the early 90s the acceptance rate dropped to 140,000. Starting in the early 2000s to 2017, the acceptance rate was around 70,000. Currently today President Trump has the acceptance rate around 18,000! But while all of this in America was happening the Syrian crisis was getting worse and worse. Since 2011 in syria, there have about 12.9 million Syrians displaced from their homes. Half of the people that have been affected are children. The reason why they are being displaced is because of the 2 governments have been fighting for religious power. Even though these governments think they are doing it for the people, they are actually making the Syrians lives miserable.
Now, let’s try and go into these refugee’s shoes. I personally can’t imagine the journey of becoming a refugee. If you were a refugee you would have to leave your homeland, and you wouldn’t be able to say goodbye to anything. If you run away from your home, you would feel so lonely and sad. While you are a refugee you would have no certainty of a better future, so you would be constantly scared and lost. I would especially be scared if I was 9 years old, and I got separated from my parents. I wouldn’t know what to do. So, we need to stop this from happening. We cannot do anything about the past, but we can do something about the future.
So I have set up a website with HIAS that will help support these refugee’s journeys. HIAS has been working on identifying refugee and Immigrant needs from all over the world, regardless of religion, race or national origin. In the last 40 years, HIAS has helped over 40,000 people from all over the world.
I have set up a website with HIAS, that will help support these refugees journeys. My goal is to raise at least $1,800, so families will be able to make it to America safely. For example $25 will purchase school supplies for young Immigrants to begin their education in America. $500 will protect DACA renewal fee for young immigrants from being deported. I have started with donating a portion of the money I have received from my Bar-Mitzvah. This is a huge deal for me because I have never donated this much money of my own to an organization. These Immigrants are in need, and I can not just sit here and do nothing. I have a sign-up sheet in the back, so please provide your email address so I can send you my website, I also have flyers that list more information about HIAS and the services that your donations contribute to these refugees.
With recent events extremely affecting Immigrants and Refugees, the work of HIAS is now needed more than ever. These immigrants are in need, and I can not just sit here and do nothing, so please join my campaign.
I would like to give thanks to everyone who has helped me. Thank you Rabbi Lauren for helping me write my D’var torah. I am grateful for Eli who helped me learn how to read torah. Jake and David I really appreciate that you participated in my Bar-Mitzvah. I would especially like to thank my Parents for helping me prepare my D’var torah and helping me get to the place I am now, I don’t know what I would do without you.
Thank you everyone for coming to my Bar-Mitzvah!