There is an order to everything in our lives. We have to be born before we can cry. We have to crawl before we can walk. We have to learn the alphabet before we can read. We have to receive training before we can work.
Our spirituality also has an order to it. We have to be okay physically before we can truly develop our spirituality. Maimonides said The Torah has two aims: the wellbeing of the body and the wellbeing of the soul. The wellbeing of the soul is what we develop with study and prayer and time and space to connect, but the wellbeing of the body requires a strong society and economy, where there are fair and decent laws, opportunities to work and empathy for each other. We have wellbeing of the body when all of our physical needs are met but in order for those needs to be met, we need a good, strong, just society. We need access to health care, we need defense from danger, we need education and we need our planet to be protected. The Rambam said spiritual achievement is higher than material achievement, but we need to ensure the second one first, because “a person suffering from great hunger, thirst, heat or cold cannot grasp an idea even if it is communicated by others, much less can he arrive at it by his own reasoning.” So basically we have to have a roof over our heads, food to eat, clothing to protect us from the elements and good enough health to not be a distraction in order to truly have spiritual connection. And we see that in this week’s Torah portion titled Va’eira which means and he said. And what he says is I am the Lord and you are going to take your people our of bondage and into the promised land. But when Moses tells the Israelites this, they do not take him seriously because of their shortness of breath and their hard labor. In other words, they are not able to connect with him spiritually because they are suffering physically. The Pharaoh also does not listen to Moses because God has hardened his heart and the plagues ensue.
So what do the plagues represent in all of this? A plague by definition can be a disastrous evil or affliction or simply a cause of irritation. But in Egypt, they were simply attention getters. They were meant to instill fear into the heart of Pharaoh but also overcome the complacency of the Israelites, complacency born of not having your physical needs met in a way that allows you to explore how things could and should be.
What are we plagued with in our lives? Are we plagued with bad business decisions, bad health, bad relationships or a bad environment? Are we plagued with a society that rewards greed over generosity and fosters fear over faith?
And the next question is are we complacent? Complacency is a feeling of contentment or self-satisfaction, especially when coupled with an unawareness of danger, trouble, or controversy. When we become used to meeting our physical needs and forget that the physical is just crawling and we have yet to walk or fly, that’s when evil can flourish.
Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day as designated by the UN in commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau 72 years ago. When we think about the Shoah, we cannot help but think of the complacency that existed among the citizens of Germany who may not themselves have been particularly anti-Semetic but allowed complacency to stop them from taking action. And we can learn lessons from those who did take action, the Righteous Among the Nations like Miep Gies who hid her friends Otto Frank and his wife and daughters, one whose name was Anne Frank, in his spice factory attic for almost 2 years before they were caught. When Miep Gies was asked about helping her friends, she said “Any attempt at action is better than inaction. An attempt can go wrong, but inaction inevitably results in failure.”
That brings us to the road to Heaven. If, as many people have said in many version, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, then the road to Heaven is paved with action and good works. We cannot be complacent when anyone in the world is persecuted. We cannot be complacent when human rights are violated. We cannot be complacent when there is violence and war. We cannot be complacent when the planet is threatened. We cannot be complacent when people are not allowed to peacefully pursue their own spirituality and religious connection. We cannot be complacent until the world is lit with peace, empathy, justice, mercy and love. We must take action as that is who the Jewish people are. We are a people of action who are commanded to work to repair this world as we have been given the promised land. We just have to make it.
Martin Luther King Jr said “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the clamor of the bad people but the appalling silence of the good people.” As we face our week, let’s not be silent. Let’s not be complacent. Let’s take action against what plagues us in our own lives, in the life of our families, communities, our country and the world.