In January 1942, Reinhard Heydrich, at the behest of his boss, Heinrich Himmler, convened a conference in a villa in Wansee, a suburb of Berlin. Some of the top hierarchy of the Nazi party and the SS were invited, including Adolf Eichmann. They had finally concluded that there was nowhere to send all the Jews.
When Hitler began his war of domination he initially had not intended to annihilate the Jews, he simply wanted them out of Europe. The Nazis may even have planned to fund their war machine by ransoming off their Jews.
In 1938, the Allies on the initiative of the United States, convened a conference in Evian, in as yet unoccupied France, to discuss the “world refugee problem” which everyone present understood as a euphemism for the Jews. The Nazis had taken over Austria and it was clear the Jews had to get out, but noone wanted them. Country after country expounded on why they could not take in any more refugees. Chaim Weizmann, one of the leaders of the Zionist movement, who would be the first president of the nascent State of Israel, understood this as early as 1936, saying:
“There are now two sorts of countries in the world: those that want to expel the Jews, and those that don’t want to admit them.”
Meanwhile, the Nazis were obsessed with creating an society where only the most productive would survive. Included in this monstrous philosophy was the idea that many were simply “unworthy of life.” This was a philosophy that did not appear from nowhere.
In the early 20th century, many European and North Americans subscribed to eugenics, which suggested that human progress depended on the genetic engineering of society whereby only “healthy” people would be allowed to reproduce. Hitler took this to its natural conclusions. One of the first laws the Nazis passed in 1933 made it legal for a doctor to sterilize a patient without consent. By 1939, over 300,000 people had been forcibly sterilized.
Then, during World War II, Hitler decided that Germany would no longer care for “useless eaters,” such as the disabled. At that point, in 1939, the Nazis embarked on their first mass murder program, code-named action T-4 (after the address of its headquarters in Berlin, 4 Tiergarten). Medical personnel murdered their disabled patients using gas chambers built in asylums at Hartheim Castle and Sonnenstein. Ilse Geuze was an early victim; there is a haunting photo of her on display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in Lower Manhattan.
In the 1930’s, Ilse left her parents’ farm in Austria to attend a school for children with disabilities. In December 1940, her parents received a letter from the director of Hartheim castle informing them that Ilse had been admitted to that institution but that visits and phone calls were no longer allowed. In January 1941, her parents received an Urn holding the ashes of 11 year old Ilse.
An entire society had gone mad, and it happened quite logically. It was only a matter of time before people were being burned in ovens, and their body fat used for fat, their hair for pillows.
This week, we read the parsha of Vaera, which seems to be a rather strange bridge between last week’s portion of Shemot and next week’s portion of Bo.
Shemot views the chilling rise of anti-Semitism in ancient Egypt as the Jews multiply and are forced into bondage and servitude and unmitigated suffering. Next week, with the plague of the firstborn, Pharaoh finally lets the Jews go and we read of the great Exodus. But this week is all about the plagues and we watch as Pharaoh ignores the devastation of his country and refuses to free the Jewish people.
Why does the parsha end after seven plagues rather than reaching the conclusion we will see next week? What is it that happens in these seven plagues that needs to stand alone? And most challenging of all, why is there a need for all these plagues in the first place? Is G-d really at war with Pharaoh? With Egypt? If G-d is omnipotent, why not simply whisk the Jews out of Egypt straight to the land of Israel? And if indeed there was a need for retribution, why not simply start and end with the tenth plague, the death of the firstborn, or simply destroy all of Egypt? Instead of just splitting the sea, why didn’t Hashem send a tidal wave to obliterate ancient Egypt?
Two details in the story of the Exodus suggest a possible response to these questions.
One occurs in next week’s parsha. When the Jews finally go forth from Egyptian bondage, they are rich, Hashem engineering a “payback” of sorts when the Jews ask of their Egyptian “neighbors” for their gold and silver. Rashi, quoting the midrash, suggests that the Jews used the plague of darkness to search the Egyptians’ homes , so that when they came to ask the Egyptions for their riches, the Egyptians would could claim poverty.
Such a strange episode! Yet this idea that the Jews would be freed with great wealth was actually a prophecy, part of Hashem’s covenant with Abraham: “…and after, they will exit with great wealth.” (Bereishit 15:14)
The second detail occurs during the sixth plague (boils or shechin). Only now are we told that “Hashem hardens Pharaoh’s heart” (Shemot 9:12). Indeed, from this point on, Hashem hardens Pharaoh’s heart; no longer can Pharaoh choose to deny the Jewish people their right to freedom — Hashem is forcing him to say no!
Indeed, the Torah tells us that specifically in the plague of hail, Pharaoh finally realizes he is wrong: “Hashem is the righteous one, and I and my people are wicked” (ibid. 9:27) and yet, Hashem refuses to let Pharaoh set the people free! Why?
In truth, this has always been part of the plan. Let’s take a closer look at the Covenant Hashem made with Avraham hundreds of years earlier: “And also I will judge the nation that they were enslaved by and after, they will exit with great wealth.” (Bereishit 15:14)
Think about it: if G-d had simply vanquished Egypt, the world would have learned that might makes right. This, suggests the Torah, cannot be the conclusion of the Exodus; the world must discover Justice: it has to discover Din.
The Jews must leave Egypt with wealth because they must be given their wages!
ncient Egypt believed that the ends justify the means, and that the strong survive, and the weak are there to be subjugated. So babies that do not serve the purpose of supporting the monarchy can be tossed in the Nile, or used as bricks for mortar.
Indeed, what justified worship was whether nature served the purposes of man, hence they worshipped the Nile, which overflowed its banks and supported the entire Egyptian economy.
So the plagues begin to demonstrate, one by one, that wealth and power are not the foundation of society, it must be justice. And the Nile, the god of Egypt, turns to blood, to signify its death. And the frogs take over until eventually they are all killed and their stench fills Egypt because, as any ancient Egyptian immediately recognized, the Frog was the Egyptian god of fertility.
And the lice which visit this message on man himself are taken from the earth which is the agricultural foundation of the Egyptian economy, fed by the Nile.
And then the cattle are destroyed — the same cattle which represent wealth become meaningless. So what happens in the plague of boils? Moshe takes ash from the furnace and uses it to visit destruction on all of Egypt, the same furnaces that create the bricks, the foundation of Egyptian industry and its technology. Their own technological advances become the vehicle of their destruction. Sound familiar?
And even the wise men of Egypt can no longer stand before the obvious absurdity of ignoring his new reality, but the message is not clear enough yet; so the story must continue.
Then comes the hail, when nature itself no longer makes sense: fire and water mix together! And the stronger water, which always extinguishes the fire, does not! The ultimate source of power: the waters of the Nile, are no longer all-powerful, and might does not necessarily make right. The logical conclusion is inescapable, and Pharaoh knows he has been wrong all along!
And that is the purpose of the portion of Vaera — for the world to change for the better, people must learn on their own that they are mistaken and that one day, as an entire society, that there is something better than might, and that is the pursuit of what is right.
Egypt cannot simply be vanquished, it must be judged. And the Jews cannot simply be freed by force, they must find freedom because it is right and true and just.
In its greatest moments, when the Allies won World War II, they did not repeat their mistake of WWI: No longer a Paris peace conference of 1919 humiliating the vanquished Germans and demonstrating that the mighty shall rule. This time, there would be a Marshal Plan that rehabilitated Germany and suggested that all nations deserve to live in peace and in prosperity that is earned. And, as well, the Nuremberg trials demonstrated that there must be justice, a reckoning of sorts. Evil cannot go unpunished, or else good will never truly prevail.
Something to think about.
Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem.