This past week in the United States, the Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr was commemorated. He is remembered for his heroic stand against injustice and demand for civil rights for all. His courage to take on the establishment and change it irrevocably altered the fabric of not just the United States, but perhaps the world. While the States still reverberates with the echoes of his powerful and eloquent words, there remains much work still to be done. He was driven by a need to correct wrongs he perceived in the world around him, to challenge things that were accepted and force people to take a long hard look at the order of things.
In this week’s Parasha, Va-era, we read about the next chapter in our Exodus story. The first of the seven plagues are introduced. What is the purpose of the plagues? With all of God’s power, could not God have simply taken the Israelites out of Egypt without all the suffering and destruction of the ten plagues?
If they are simply seen as a punishment, why ten times? If the purpose of punishment is to point out and correct bad behaviour (such as punishing a student for not doing their work or misbehaving in class) why does the text point out that God’s purpose was more than simply correcting Pharaoh’s bad behaviour? Several times in fact, God says something to the effect of I am doing what I’m doing “in order that you should know that there is none like the Lord, our God (Exodus 8:6).”
Perhaps this could help shed light on why all of Egypt is made to suffer through the plagues and not just Pharaoh. The objective was not simply to punish, or simply to have God’s name made known, but both. They are not mutually exclusive. There are certain standards of behaviour that we as a society demand. There could not be a functioning community if we did not all adhere to those norms. Yet, simply adhering to those standards is not enough. From time to time, it is incumbent on us to point out people or events that do not live up to those norms. The people of Egypt did stand up and demand better treatment of the Israelites and thus, to a level, they are just as culpable as Pharaoh. Our standards and humanity dictate that we must not rejoice in their suffering, but we must also understand why they are being punished.
These plagues then serve as a reminder that when we observe an immoral behaviour, it is our duty as Jews and more importantly people in a society to speak out. The plagues are a warning of what might happen if we lose our moral compass. Everybody, from the leaders down to the lowest member of our society, have an obligation to stand up for what is right and just. Failure to do so will lead to the downfall of our society.
Martin Luther King, Jr saw this 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.
I pray that this week we find the courage to stand up when we see injustice, for all of us to lend our voice and to constantly maintain our vigilance in order that we may continue to improve our society and never become complacent in our pursuit of justice.