What can the tenth plague teach us about how to respond to Ukraine?

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Leap of Faith

What can the tenth plague teach us about how to respond to Ukraine?

A stimulating series where our progressive rabbis consider how biblical figures might act when faced with 21st century issues

The dead bodies of people killed by Russian shelling in the town of Irpin, Ukraine. (AP Photo/Diego Herrera Carcedo)
The dead bodies of people killed by Russian shelling in the town of Irpin, Ukraine. (AP Photo/Diego Herrera Carcedo)

Liberal Judaism’s tradition for our Pesach Torah reading has been to omit the verses that tell of the night of the tenth plague, of the destroyer or Angel of Death killing the firstborn of the Egyptians, whether human or cattle, from the wealthiest to the poorest.

Sometimes, texts that offend our sensibilities are best avoided. But other times, they remind us of one of the most uncomfortable of human truths – many people are capable of despicable acts if you put them into certain positions, under particular circumstances.

Everyone confronted with atrocities likes to believe they would behave better than that, but the evidence of human behaviour is that only a small proportion of people will courageously oppose a prevailing cult-like group born of propaganda, victimhood (perceived or real), prejudice, animosity and so on.

As we sit at home and watch the latest news bulletins from Ukraine, it is very easy to condemn the perpetrators of the atrocities that are revealed to us. Just as I believe we ought to read about the hard-to-stomach parts of the Torah, I say that we should not change channel to avoid the news, however painful it is to watch or hear.

That is only the first small step in a long journey from knowledge of such things happening to actively stopping what is going on and preventing it from happening again. We cannot take every step on our own – none of us has enough power to complete that journey. Yet, we can make further steps if we – as the Israelites did (according to later Midrashic commentaries) – change our ways and abandon our bad habits.

The rabbis asked why the Israelite slaves were redeemed by God and one answer analyses the earlier verses of Exodus 12 to find an answer. The Israelites had to take a lamb on the tenth day of the month and look after it before killing the paschal lamb on the 14th day towards dusk, using its blood on the doorposts and lintel, and then eating the Passover meal.

The Midrash pictures Moses asking God why a lamb, when lambs were also Egyptian gods? The answer is that the people had to overcome their adoption of Egyptian gods in order to merit freedom.

What we are seeing in Ukraine is a massive wake-up call, somewhat like the paschal lamb and the dreadful tenth plague. Our values have been compromised by trading with cheap suppliers – Russia (think Crimea, Syria, Salisbury poisonings, Ukraine) and China (one-party state, Uyghur Muslims, Hong Kong) especially – whose practices and policies we ought to abhor.

We have also compromised our Jewish values and basic humanity in allowing our government to make it very difficult for refugees from war to enter the UK.

As we come to the end of Pesach, we must begin the long march to freedom and covenantal responsibility.

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