Parashat B'ha'alotekha

Our Covenantal Responsibilities

This week's parashah reminds us of our sacred obligations to those who are still languishing in oppression.

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This commentary is provided by special arrangement with American Jewish World Service. To learn more, visit www.ajws.org.

As slaves living under Pharaoh's law, the Israelites existed in a society which neither recognized the value of their beliefs, nor honored their inherent dignity as human beings. Though they received food and shelter, these were given in the most meager amounts.

In Parshat B'ha'alotkha, just a weeks after their liberation from slavery, the Israelites prepare to offer their Passover sacrifice to God. Representing a unique moment in the history of the Jews, this sacrifice commemorates both our people's liberation from slavery, as well as our communal redemption by God.

Standing at Sinai, amidst peels of thunder, the Israelites entered into a covenant with God and agreed to accept God's laws. Now in a covenantal relationship with God, their new obligations and responsibilities became central to their existence and identity as Israelites.

By the very definition of "covenant," the Israelites at that moment became partners with God. As a people living in a sacred covenant, they assumed numerous responsibilities and obligations both as individuals and as a community. The Israelites were individually accountable for their actions and their failures to act, for their words and their deeds.

Like our ancestors, we as modern Jews are personally and communally accountable for what we say and what we do. Above all else, this is the sacred inheritance that is passed from generation to generation.

Oppression Still Remains

In Egypt, the Israelites were oppressed and enslaved by Pharaoh. Although the world has changed immensely since that time, the existence of oppression and strife remains. "Pharaohs," oppressive forces, abound in today's world. Leaders, such as Sudan's General Omar Al Bashir, are one modern form of oppressor.

Despite international pressure, Al Bashir continues to perpetrate genocide against the people of Darfur.The Janjaweed, militias supported by Bashir's government, visit violence, destruction, and rape upon the civilian population. They have slaughtered hundreds of thousands and left millions of refugees faced with depravation, poverty, and despair.

Other modern forces of oppression take a less tangible shape. Around the globe, trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) continue to rob farmers of their livelihood. Due to these agreements, some families are pushed out of subsistence farming and reduced to poverty.

All of these forms of oppression remain in existence in part due to public apathy. In some ways the most difficult challenge to overcome, apathy legitimates the other modern "pharaohs" by helping them reign unchallenged.

Taking Action

As Jews, we have a special responsibility to try to combat modern forms of oppression. To celebrate our own liberation from slavery without working to empower those who are still oppressed is to fail to live in our fullest potential of covenantal relationship with God.

Our tradition teaches, "You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to refrain from it." As Jews we understand that our covenant with God comes with many obligations and responsibilities. We are obligated to celebrate our liberation and to remember our redemption, and we are invited to welcome others to join with us in these celebrations.

Whether our global neighbors are oppressed by regimes of hatred and violence or subjugated by poverty, starvation, and indifference, this week's parashah reminds us of our sacred obligations to those who are still languishing in oppression.

Our history as Jews and our covenantal responsibilities to God can and should inform our actions today. When we buy food and products that have been ethically produced and reflect the dignity of the people who produce them, we are celebrating our own liberation from slavery. When we call our elected representatives and contact them regularly to make Darfur intervention a priority, we are commemorating our own redemption. Let us fulfill our covenantal relationship with God by continuing to strive for liberation and redemption so that those who are suffering may know justice and peace.

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Rabbi Devorah Marcus is Assistant Rabbi at Temple Beth-El of Great Neck.