Parashat Vaeira 5780

Rabbi Dr Margaret Jacobi, 24 January 2020

Blurred Boundaries and Hard Questions

The film ‘Defiance’ tells the story of the Bielski brothers, who sheltered and saved over a thousand Jews in the forests of Byelorussia during the second world war. Some were able to fight as partisans, others were frail elderly people and children. The film is moving, tense and disturbing. It raises questions about vengeance and justice, about leadership and the cost of freedom. It shows how the two oldest brothers bitterly disputed how far they should take vengeance on those Russians who gave Jews up to the Nazis, and how far they should go to save even the frailest people. Both brothers found the boundaries between right and wrong blurred and faced difficult decisions about when violence could be justified. The audience, too, found itself faced with these questions. There were times when the violence was hard to justify: the first act of vengeance on the man who had betrayed their parents was shocking. But later on a man was shot who was destroying the camps foundations of co-operation for his own gain. When I watched the film, I found myself thinking that may have been the only way to maintain the unity of the camp. All through, as the brothers faced questions of when to kill and when to spare lives, we were faced with the same questions.

The very same questions that were raised by the film are raised by this week’s sidrah, and by the following weeks’ which continue the narration of the Exodus. As we acknowledge at our Seder by spilling drops of wine, freedom comes at a price. Moses has already killed a man, albeit an Egyptian taskmaster who was beating a slave, even before he begins as leader. He goes to Pharaoh and demands that he let the Israelites go. But Pharaoh does not wish to listen. His refusal to let the people go results in terrible suffering. Plague after plague follows and it seems that only the ultimate dreadful price, the killing of the firstborn children, is sufficient to persuade him. Was there any other way? Perhaps not, if our people were to be free. True, the Torah tells us that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, but perhaps that is only a reflection of the reality that the more a leader feels beleaguered, the more obstinate and determined they become.

One people’s suffering ultimately comes to be weighed against another’s. We would that innocent people should not suffer, but in every war in history, from the Exodus to Afghanistan, it seems the innocent are caught up in conflict. As our Haggadah tells us: “As tyranny brings death and terror to its victims, so the struggle to overthrow it claims its casualties”. We wish it could be otherwise, but ultimately the only way to ensure the innocent do not suffer is to find ways to end oppression and the endless conflicts that beset humanity.

The Exodus story and the story of the partisans show the complexities of life. It is not always possible to judge what is the right action and we, who are not faced with such situations, should be wary of judging those who are. One thing did become clear in the film, and that too has a parallel in the Exodus story. Motivation matters. Those who lead must care above all for those they lead. They must not be concerned for their own power or position, only that the vulnerable are protected. That was what drove Tuvia Bielski in the forests. He was determined that no-one, however weak, should be turned away. His authority was challenged by someone who wanted personal gain. Similarly, Moses did not seek power and took on the leadership reluctantly. A midrash tells us that he was chosen because he when he was a shepherd he had spent a day searching for a lost lamb.

Most of us will never face such challenges. Let us learn then, to be careful in judging those who do. And let us play what part we can in helping to build a world where such decisions do not need to be made, where justice and freedom will prevail and all will live in peace and security, where, in the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Violence shall no more be heard in your land, devastation or destruction within your borders; they shall not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of God as waters cover the bed of the sea.”

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