Parashat Bo–the Torah Portion read yesterday morning–contains the last of the 10 Plagues that God visited upon the Egyptians. The last, the death of the first born of both human and beast, was the most devastating of all of them; it was the plague that finally convinced Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go.
Much interpretation has been written about the final plague. It is clear that this plague personally touched Pharaoh and his family. All the previous plagues may have affected the rest of the Egyptians, but Pharaoh’s powerful position may have prevented him from their full force. With the death of the first born, not a house in Egypt did not experience the loss–including Pharaoh’s palace.
There is a recognizable truth in this. We know that often we are not moved until something touches us directly. We may hear about injustice or war or suffering, but we don’t do anything about it if we are not affected by it. If it comes knocking at our door, however, we are the first to step up, complain, and act.Judaism teaches us that we cannot take this approach. We must remember our experience as outsiders to feel what others feel and act accordingly. This is called “having empathy.” It is something that Pharaoh seemed to lack. It is something that is often missing in our society as well. It is found at every level; unless we are somehow inconvenienced or aggrieved we are silent.
The price for not acting is a high one. When we do not stand up for others, when we do not feel what they feel…we cannot expect them to do the same for us. Setting that aside, wee stand up for others because it is the right thing to do? It is our sacred duty to be empathic. We know it means to suffer, and we should work to prevent others from having to experience it as well.