Thoughts on parashat Vaera.
I was born in Poland, in a country where many fundamental human freedoms were taken away for 45 years by autocrats who believed that the historical progress of humanity gave them knowledge and awareness of the ultimate causes of all injustices in the human world. This awareness was supposed to give them a never ending mandate to rule the country and the society, as they believed to be ‘saviors of the world’ opposing the inhumane, imperialistic and evil capitalism of the Western World. One of the reasons their reign lasted so long was that no one was able to question, or even to point out at their limited knowledge, their narrow understanding of history, as well as at their arrogance and power-greed. Nobody was able to do it because nobody was allowed to speak freely; even people in power, like government officials had to adjust everything they thought and said to the official ‘party line’ – the dominant, unquestionable, the only-true narrative.
It was 1983 I guess, or perhaps 1984 – which would sound a bit symbolic. I was 4 or 5 then, standing with my grandma at 6 am in a long line outside the local store just to be able to buy essential groceries. It was two hours before the store was open and we were to buy the groceries not with money, but with special coupon cards issued by the government, for every citizen. As we entered the store, I noticed that one of the light bulbs on the ceiling was off. I said then – and I know this from my mother’s account – “Oh, the light bulb is off! Daddy will come and fix it!”.
My mom and my grandma always told this story with a smile. For a long time I felt embarrassed hearing it repeated but it was a funny story for them. The main reason it was funny was that it was bizarre for most people living in Poland in those days. In that political system it would have been impossible for my father, a very talented electrician, to simply come and fix the wiring or even replace the light bulb in this store. My father could not own his own business to perform such services for anyone who needed them. For many people, probably the majority of society, the only possibility of professional development was to work in a large state-owned company, terribly bureaucratized and completely controlled by the government appointees.
Had I been a child in Poland now, and said the same thing about the bulb, it would not have been funny, or at least not that funny. The store owner would simply call a local electrician, who could have been my father. It is so because a few years after I noticed this bulb Polish people finally overthrew communism and became free people again. Nevertheless, the damage this system has done to their culture and mentality is still felt today, 33 years later.
Our parasha for this week – Va’eira – also tells the story of people who lost their freedom – the story of our people, our ancestors. It describes the beginnings of their liberation from Egyptian slavery. It depicts a situation where two social groups cannot coexist any more due to the exploitation of one group done by the representatives of another who wielded absolute power over everything in the society. The abused ones – the Israelites – want just a peaceful divorce but the abusers – Pharaoh and his courtiers – do not want to give this divorce.
The Israelites, however, have a secret Divine power behind them; this Divine power manifests in two ways: through supernatural events, often called wonders or miracles, and through other, invisible powers, also often deemed Divine. However, the spectacular and wonderful elements in this story in fact overshadow the existence of the equally important, crucial and necessary powers in this entire process, that those events actually represent. These powers are: hope, faith, patience, persistence, courage and knowledge that we indeed have agency in the world – agency against tyranny.
The two social groups in our biblical story reach a point of no return. There was no hope of survival for the Israelites in Egypt. The Egyptian darkness squashed the light our Forefathers brought to the world. Therefore, our ancestors had to go and build their own life in a different land, in the land promised by God, who knew ahead it was going to happen and assigned to us this Holy piece of land, to build just, prosperous and blessed society, a whole new civilization based on freedom and law, with only one obedience – to the Eternal One. This entire venture was also meant to serve as a model for other peoples in the world.
The story of our enslavement has been repeated throughout the history of our diaspora, as well as throughout the history of other nations. It took us thousands of years to build societies that enjoy individual human freedoms, prosperity, access to information, healthcare and other services at a historically unprecedented scope. We, Jewish people and our message to the world have played an important role in this process. Yet, in today’s world we see dangers to our fundamental freedoms, and to all that we have achieved, looming on both sides of the political spectrum; they are just rationalized in different ways. Some of the influential people on that scene justify taking away some of our freedoms by referring to higher necessities, like the common good of the whole world and all people. These claims are typically made in the context of climate change or disease prevention. Yes, the world of our time has its particular problems and challenges, both in the realm of nature and culture. “We should press the government so they would do something about it” – that’s how many people think about these issues. But that’s not a good approach, because these problems can’t be solved and won’t be solved by bureaucrats, and no amount of regulations or political fiats would be helpful here. It will just make us all poorer and angry. Neither these problems can be solved by people who believe that they are infallible and beyond criticism. Also, no amount of virtue-signaling, saying this or that should be banned, blaming and demonizing others, particularly those of different views and opinions, no amount of whining, emotional arguments, accusatory speeches and tantrums about how bad is the world we live in can truly help us to solve the problems we face today.
Firstly, because the world we live in is not bad: globally, it is a much better, safer, happy, affluent and prosperous place than it has ever been. For example, annual deaths from natural disasters have decreased by 75 percent over the past 100 years, according to the International Disaster Database, despite the fact that the world human population has greatly increased since then. Our great-grandparents would have been absolutely amazed if they had a chance to merely see the world we live in. They would have been stunned with all the things we typically take for granted, like opportunities of learning, access to information, visual communication, technology, entertainment, traveling possibilities and the general standard of living.
Secondly and more importantly in order to solve these problems we need to have more, not less freedom. Our problems can be solved only through proper, scientific education that is free from any kind of ideological indoctrination, through hard work, free creativity. It all requires freedom of thought, of debate, free exchange of ideas, freedom of enterprise and cooperation between people within the society and between the societies. People who are poor and deprived of opportunities don’t care about the environment and many other problems we face today. All they care about is their own survival. Only the people who live in free and prosperous societies care about those problems. The driving force of all progress is freedom and economic prosperity, not the power consolidated in the hands of certain people ‘who know better’ and want to lecture the whole of humanity on how we should live, act or talk. I don’t think that further empowerment of unelected global officials and other globalists is particularly wise and will do any good. Those self-proclaimed ‘saviors of the world’ are the same kind of people that ruled Poland for 45 years.
It is only human intelligence, free thought, prosperity, science and more technological innovation that can help us build a world that is better than the one we live in. The problems we face can be solved only through the power of our minds and the minds of new generations educated to further develop all that we have already achieved. Namely, the way we have always solved the problems we dealt with.