Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Parsha Va'eira: Our Responsibility Towards the Suffering of Others

The Pharaoh was a relentless ruler. He enslaved the entire Jewish people, and made the Jews work long, arduous hours and live in poor conditions. But why did Moses have to worry? He grew up in the Pharaoh's palace and was sheltered from the suffering of the Jewish people. Even after helping a fellow Jew from getting beaten to death (Exodus 2:11) and fleeing Egypt, Moses was under no obligation to help the Jewish people. Nevertheless, G-d directed Moses back to Egypt to help free the Jewish people. Why? What was the importance of G-d's guidance? Why couldn't G-d just let Moses live in peace?

G-d wants us to learn an important lesson here: there is more to life than the self. We do not live in a bubble, and our actions have effects on other people. The Hebrew word for responsibility is אחריות. Looking at the root of the word אחריות, which is אחר, there are two things we can learn about the root. One possibility is the origin of the word אחריות is from the word achrei (אחרי), which means "after." When we do something, there is always an "after" in the sense that our actions have consequences. After all, who is wise? He who foresees the consequences of his actions (Pirke Avot 2:14). It is important that we understand foresight and the impacts of our actions. However, it is incomplete with the other interpretation. Acher (אחר), which means "other," completes the interpretation. In Pirke Avot (6:6), there is a list of 48 ways to acquire Torah. One of those ways is to share a friend's burden. What does this have to do with this week's Torah portion?

G-d heard the outcry of the children of Israel (Exodus 6:5). According to R. Moshe Sofer, not only did G-d hear this outcry, but so did the people of Israel. In spite of the fact that the entirety of the Jewish people were enslaved (with the exception of Moses), they were not supposed to forget the plight of their fellow man.

Although the Jewish people were responsible for their fellow man, Moses had an even bigger responsibility. Moses acted as a diplomat for the Jewish people, and had to persuade the Pharaoh to "let his people go." G-d told Moses to "rise up early in the morning and stand tall before the Pharaoh (Exodus 9:13)." Moses, a humble man who was "slow in tongue" (Exodus 4:10), was supposed to stand up to the Pharaoh. This was a man who had to really step out of his comfort zone to stand up to injustice. Without a sense of responsibility for others, the Jewish people would have never been freed from the bonds of slavery.

"Every man for himself" reflects a selfish egoism that brings about moral decline.Without caring about others, we rob individuals of their essential humanity. What Moses realized is that responsibility is what removes apathy of what goes on around us. Responsibility instills a sense of humility within us. Responsibility is the very thing that helps transcend the individual from focusing on the self to making a positive difference in the lives of those who need help.

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