Vaera: Top Down Morality

By: rabbi jay kelman |

Whether it is in the sphere of politics, religious life or in the sphere of general morality, one often hears people bemoaning the dearth of leadership that seems to surround us. We yearn for men and women of vision, tenacity, determination and most importantly moral vision to lead us - instead of those who may just be following the latest opinion poll. Sadly, our generation has not always been able to attract the most capable people into positions of leadership, leaving a vacuum that is eagerly filled by people who lack the necessary integrity and values which make for a respected, effective leader.

At the same time society often gets the leaders it deserves. We create the climate that encourages certain types of people to grab the mantle of leadership. If money, negative advertising and aggression is what it often takes to get elected, it is because these are the values that society looks up to. If personal morality in our leaders is not an issue that concerns us, it is precisely because society views morality as a personal manner without public repercussions. While we easily see the connection between societal priorities and elected officials in a democracy, this also holds true - though less so - in a dictatorial regime. (Usually) evil can only be carried out if there are willing accomplices and an indifferent public. We, unfortunately, learned this lesson during the horrors of the Holocaust.

With this in mind, we can possibly understand why the Egyptian people had to suffer during the plagues. Pharaoh may have been responsible for the evil decrees, but he was only able to carry them out because of his many helpers in society. While there is no doubt that innocent people suffered during the plagues - as they always do during difficult times – it was Egypt as a whole and not just Pharaoh responsible for maltreatment of minorities[1].

Beyond any notion of punishment, the 10 plagues served an educational tool bringing home the message that G-d is not only the G-d of creation but also of history and nature.

The concept of a G-d who intervenes in worldly events and to whom we are accountable was a message that was meant not only for the Egyptians but also - and primarily - for the nascent Jewish nation. The 70 souls who had arrived in Egypt 210 years earlier knew that they were part of a family destined to forge a unique relationship with G-d. To their millions of descendants, the teachings of Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivka, Yakov, Leah and Rachel had been long forgotten. Their modes of thinking and action were shaped by the all-pervasive Egyptian culture. As is often the case, certain remnants of their background were maintained even as they were assimilating. They continued to speak Hebrew, give their children Jewish names and to wear distinctly Jewish clothing. However these cultural links were not enough to guarantee the survival of the Jews as a distinct people. In fact, they even stopped performing the rite of circumcision thereby severing their link to Abraham.

While it was hoped that the plagues would convince the Jews to acknowledge G-d and accept his demands upon us, they were only partially successful in this regard. While it took great courage and a leap of faith to follow Moshe and Aharon into an unknown desert, the Jewish people spared no opportunity to complain whenever the occasion arose. G-d's past benevolence was quickly forgotten. Furthermore, the Midrash claims, only 20% of the Jews actually left Egypt. The remaining 80% remained unconvinced, preferring to stay in Egypt .

People are not easily convinced to change their behavioural patterns even when witnessing a "miracle". One must look no further than the wars the State of Israel has been forced to fight. Many a Jew will to this day readily admit that Israel 's victories were miraculous in nature clearly showing that G-d does watch over his people. Yet this "belief" does not necessarily translate into integrating G-d's demands into our lives.

One must be psychologically prepared for such acceptance and the responsibilities that flow from it. Whether we come to acknowledge G-d through nature, an analysis of history or by studying His Torah, the way we interact with our fellow man must clearly show that G-d does play a role in our lives.

 

[1] At the same time it could very well be that the vast majority of Egyptians were truly innocent. Events around the world demonstrate that the evil perpetrated by the few can hurt millions. Perhaps that is the meaning of the phrase avadim hayeenu lePharoah b'Mitzraim, we were slaves to Pharaoh – but not to the Egyptian people.