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Lonye Debra Rasch
Hadassah Editor, Writer and Member, Hadassah's National Assembly

Pharaoh, Hamas, Israel and Me

Image courtesy of Hadassah.
Image courtesy of Hadassah.
Photo courtesy of Hadassah.

Recently, I was asked to give the d’var Torah at a national Hadassah shabbaton. The Torah portion for that week was Parshat Bo. When I discovered it was about the 10 plagues that G-d unleashed on the Egyptians because Pharaoh refused to let the Israelites go free, my initial reaction was, “Oh, no! I don’t want to talk about locusts and hail — and certainly not the killing of the Egyptians’ first-born sons.”

But I knew that once I begin to engage with a Torah portion, it always sparks a host of fascinating questions to ponder and offers a wealth of life lessons.

For example, “Why, after enduring seven horrific plagues, didn’t Pharaoh let the Israelites go?” Interestingly, Pharaoh was not only head of state but also the divine intermediary between the gods and the Egyptians, so his arrogance and sense of importance were deep-seated. Still, after a number of plagues, it did seem as if maybe, just maybe, Pharaoh’s resolve was weakening.

What did G-d do then? He hardened Pharaoh’s heart, which leads to the second key question I found myself asking: “Why didn’t G-d just soften Pharaoh’s heart and spare the Egyptian people all that suffering?” Was their suffering divine justice? Did G-d have to bring the plagues upon Pharaoh and his people because they needed to be punished for enslaving the Israelites and treating them cruelly?

Some scholars think so. Others say that G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart because Pharaoh was not remorseful, that he only offered to let the Israelites go because he could not bear the plagues. Still other commentators say it is because Pharaoh needed to learn to revere G-d — with a capital “g” –  as the one true sovereign and to realize that all of the Egyptians’ gods were false gods.

Finally, G-d unleashed the severest plague: death of the first born of each Egyptian family. It’s a hard plague to get your heart around. I feel the same queasiness as when I bear witness to Israel’s horrible war with Hamas, during which countless children and thousands of other civilians have been killed.

Perhaps even more devastating is that, unlike during the time of the ten plagues, it is not G-d’s hand that is delivering death and destruction in Gaza. Rather, it is the terribly painful task of the Israel Defense Forces.

Perhaps what Parshat Bo teaches us is that, sometimes, there has to be destruction and death – whether to achieve the end of slavery or to ensure the survival of our Jewish homeland. But what pains me is that Hamas has given the Israelis no choice but to be warriors — a role they do not want. Israel is a melting pot of pioneers, of builders — not destroyers.

Parshat Bo offers another crucial lesson. As the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth of England, pointed out in “The Story We Tell,” the Torah portion doesn’t end with the freeing of the Israelites nor does it conclude with any mandates as to the type of society they will have to build once they complete their journey through the desert to the Land of Israel.

Instead, G-d talks at length about the duty of parents to tell their children the story of the Exodus and to hold a rather elaborate festival to commemorate it. As we know, this commemoration has become today’s Passover seder.

Rabbi Sacks emphasizes that the G-d commands the Israelites “to tell the story as your own, not as some dry account of history. Say that the way you live and the ceremonies you observe are because of what G-d did for me — not my ancestors, but me. Make it vivid, make it personal, and make it live.”

Rabbi Sacks concludes, “We cannot live without identities, families, communities and collective responsibility, which means we cannot live without the stories that connect us to a past, a future and a larger group whose history and destiny we share. A story told across the generations is the gift of an identity, and when you know who you are and why, you can navigate the wilderness of time with courage and confidence.”

We Jews know who we are. Largely thanks to my life in Hadassah, I am well-versed as to my purpose in this world. My Hadassah colleagues, fellow members and I are united by our multifaceted mission to safeguard and strengthen our Jewish homeland, to promote health equity and social justice for all and to hold tikkun olam, the need to repair the world, front and center in our lives. We are united, too, by our hope for shalom, for the ever-elusive peace we crave for Israel and the entire world.

About the Author
Lonye Debra Rasch is a special projects writer and editor for Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America and Hadassah International, HWZOA’s global fundraising arm. She is also a member of the Hadassah Writers' Circle. Having spent her professional writing and editing career specializing in health care and psychology, she now is a volunteer full time and a member of HWZOA’s National Assembly, its governing body. Married to an international attorney, she is the mother of two daughters and the grandmother of three small children. She is a big advocate of practicing yoga, being a member of a book club group with smart, kind women, and spending time laughing and sharing life’s little sagas with family and friends. She lives Short Hills, NJ, and New York City and is the past president of Hadassah Northern New Jersey.
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