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Parashat Vaera

January 10, 2008

By Heidi Hoover

This week’s Torah portion, Va‘era, continues a saga that many Jews have lived with all their lives and that we tell every year at our Passover tables: the exodus from Egypt. Last week Moses and Aaron had their first confrontations with Pharaoh, to no avail. Now the narrative takes us through the first seven plagues: blood, frogs, lice, swarms of insects (some say wild beasts), livestock disease, boils, and hail. We’re good at listing the plagues. We give prizes to religious school kids who can recite them. I’ve recently noticed a trend of frog-themed Passover toys and other products. Apparently frogs were the cute plague.

In our familiarity with this story, it seems we don’t notice the fear and pain in it anymore. Those experiencing the plagues must have thought it was the end of the world. The plague of blood meant the water was contaminated, undrinkable. Fish died. Later plagues left dead frogs and dead livestock everywhere. People were incapacitated by boils, killed by hail. There was the stink of rotting flesh and the destruction of food-it is difficult even to imagine what it must have been like. And if we really tried to put ourselves there and understand what the experience was every time we read this text, we might be overwhelmed with horror. It is necessary and important for us to keep some emotional distance from terrible violence, in order for us to continue to be able to function.

In the early 1980s the United States was gripped for a couple of years by intense fear of nuclear war. It may have started with the TV movie The Day After, which depicted the aftermath of a (fictional) nuclear strike in Kansas. This was during the Cold War, when Americans feared that we might find ourselves at war with the Soviet Union. After a while, though, discussion of nuclear arms receded to the background, along with the fear of them. The bombs still exist, and occasionally we hear about the possibility that terrorists might gain access to them. We worry about North Korea and Iran developing nuclear weapons technology. However, there has not been a national resurgence of the kind of fear that people were feeling in the early 1980s. Because we’ve lived with this threat for so long, we’re familiar with it and have managed to create some emotional distance from it, so we can continue to function.

Right now people live in terror in Iraq and Darfur, and in other places around the world. To look closely at their situations is so painful it is overwhelming. We have to step back, distance ourselves enough not to be paralyzed by the horror.

There has to be a balance, though. If we become too distanced, we stop caring. We stop looking for ways to help, we stop looking for ways to end these situations. It is important that we feel outrage, sadness, and pain on behalf of other human beings, so that we feel invested in creating a better world for all of us. Judaism, sensibly, tells us we should help whether we feel compassion or not, because our tradition recognizes that we can become overwhelmed and consequently inured to the violence and tragedy in the world. However, it is good to feel the compassion, to sometimes open ourselves enough to feel a little of the pain and terror others live with all the time. It helps us to remember how privileged we are, and that we have a responsibility to others.

Heidi Hoover is a rabbinical student at AJR.