ParshaVa’era January 8, 2005/27 Tevet 5765 Rabbi Moshe P. Weisblum
My dear friends,
People are always asking each other, "So… what’s new?" It seems that these days there is always something new. Every day brings news of another earth-shattering event. The shifts taking place globally are impossible to overlook.
Seismic shifts: the earthquake tsunami in Asia leaves hundreds of thousands dead, injured, or homeless.
Geologic shifts: the mudslide in California buries homes and families.
Political shifts: the inauguration of the new Bush administration… the death of Arafat… the rise to leadership of Abbas… turbulence and shifting alliances among the leaders of Israel… terrorism around the world.
We are living in a time of revolutionary change and global upheaval. In the blink of an eye, a catastrophe of epic magnitude takes place. Minutes later, the whole world has seen it on television, or on the World Wide Web. Newspaper reporters stationed in the far corners of the world transmit in-depth and up-close information, and photojournalists zoom in on the human side of the calamity. Hours later, the forces of good are mobilized—rescue missions, aid from governments and from ordinary people around the world, planes carrying food and medicine and hope.
News reports described the recent tsunami as being a disaster of "biblical proportions." What does this bring to mind? We need look no further than the events in the Torah portion for this week,parshas Bo. Here we have the story of the last three of the Ten Plagues that were brought upon Egypt, when the People of Israel were slaves to Pharaoh.
Hail—fire inside ice. Darkness—total blackness for three days. And the slaying of the firstborn in every Egyptian household.
What insights can we gain from this parsha, and how can we apply this understanding to our own lives today? First of all, let’s examine the quality of Pharaoh’s leadership during such a pivotal time. Was he a strong leader? A wise leader? A good leader?
There is no question that Pharaoh had strength. He had power. He was held up as a deity in the eyes of the Egyptian people. His magicians were able to perform seemingly miraculous tricks. Yet when tragedy befell the people of Egypt, their leader was not able to protect them.
Pharaoh’s power obviously could not compare with the power of the Almighty G-d. But it was not a lack of physical or political power, but rather of wisdom and compassion, that caused Pharaoh to allow his own people to be destroyed.
Because he lacked wisdom, he did not respond effectively to the events that ultimately devastated his country. Because he lacked compassion—as it says, "his heart was hardened"—he was not responsive to the needs of his own people, let alone to the needs of the People of Israel. In fact, he was a cruel tyrant who abused his power and, in so doing, brought about his own downfall and the ruin of his country.
Since the time of Pharaoh and until this very day, the one thing that has always been constant is change. It is not only in our times that the world is unpredictable, that the unexpected happens. Throughout history, revolutionary change has often occurred suddenly.
In the time of the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt, a dramatic overturn happened overnight. Slavery and oppression one day, freedom the next.
History books are filled with examples of sudden, sweeping change. The world changes in quantum leaps:
The discovery of America. The French Revolution. Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the abolishment of slavery in this country, and the Civil Rights movement one hundred years later—which we will commemorate this Monday, on Martin Luther King day.
The industrial revolution, mass production, the invention of the electric light. The Bolshevik Revolution and the rise of communism at the beginning of the twentieth century. Tearing down the Berlin Wall, the fall of Communism. Medical discoveries. Breakthroughs in communication and information. The birth of the State of Israel. September 11. Change happens suddenly, and the world is never the same again.
So political and cultural revolution is nothing unusual. Earthquakes, mudslides, hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfire, floods— what insurance companies accurately call "acts of G-d"—have occurred since biblical times and continue to occur today, more and more frequently, it seems. Change is inevitable.
The question is this: How do we react? How do the leaders of the world react? Are they wise and compassionate, sensitive to the needs of their constituency? Do they act in harmony with G-d? Are they concerned only about their own power, or do they care about being a force for good in the world?
In complete contrast to Pharaoh, Moshe Rabbeinu epitomizes leadership that is characterized by sensitivity and humility. When he was a youth growing up in Pharaoh’s palace, Moshe demonstrated that he was compassionate. He intervened when one Jew raised a hand to hit another. He took action when an Egyptian beat a Jewish slave.
Later, when the time came for the Jews to leave Egypt, Moshe did not want to be the one to lead them. He didn’t want to confront Pharaoh. He did so only because G-d called upon him to do it. His every action, and every word he spoke, was exactly according to divine instructions.
In the same way, world leaders today will succeed only when they are motivated by compassion for their people, fear of G-d, and a love of peace.
And what about each one of us? We live in a global community. We are all citizens of the world. Events that take place on the other side of the earth affect us almost as if they were just around the corner. We see the images in real-time. We hear the sounds of waves crashing, parents crying for their children. Again and again, as new events unfold in places near and far, we are there too. There are tragedies, and there are triumphs. When the whole world is constantly shifting, how do we stay grounded?
The answer is: G-d is called a rock—the Torah is our anchor. In times of turmoil, we stay balanced by turning to our Jewish rituals and traditions. One of the fathers of modern sociology, Emil Durkheim, son of a distinguished rabbi in nineteenth-century France, wrote about the value of ritual as a solidifying force for people, families, and communities.
Eitz chayim hi la-machazikim bah--we sing these words from the Book of Proverbs after the reading of the Torah. "The Torah is a tree of life for all who hold fast to it." When disaster strikes, we stay rooted to our Tree of Life.
When lives are lost to terrorism or natural disaster, we are reminded of how fragile and precious life is. We give thanks and say blessings for the good in our lives, for our material comforts, our food, our families, and our health. We pray for G-d’s protection, and for the well-being of our governments and leaders. By reciting Tehilim, the Psalms of King David, we express our heartfelt prayers for the health and welfare of others.
Through learning Torah and doing Mitzvot, the commandments given to us by G-d, we affirm our bond with the Almighty and bring light to the world. Most of all, giving Tzedakah and doing good deeds to help others blesses the world with our loving kindness, and helps to tip the world toward the side of goodness.
In this time of cosmic change, may our good deeds help to bring about the fulfillment of the words of our prophets, and may we soon merit the ultimate revolution: an era of true and lasting peace, for Israel and for the entire world. Shabbat shalom.