I have been thinking about the cost of my freedom. In particular what is the cost to others for my freedom? How many innocents have died in our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq or our continuing drone war? To be sure the wicked have been killed and terrorist attacks prevented. Still I wonder how many innocent civilians have been killed so that I can continue to enjoy the simple pleasures of my life, to walk around a city unafraid, to sit in a restaurant with friends, to dance at a wedding celebration.
Last month we read that a drone strike killed eleven people in Yemen as they were traveling in a wedding convoy. It was reported that those killed were most likely affiliated with Al Qaeda. It is also possible and perhaps even likely that at least some were innocent wedding goers.
Every Spring we gather around our Seder tables and pause to recall the plagues: Daam-Blood, Tz’fardeiah-Frogs, Keenem-Lice, Ahrov-Wild Beasts, Dehver-Cattle Plague, Sh’cheen-Boils, Barad-Hail, Arbeh-Locusts, Choshech-Darkness, Makat B’chorot-Death of Firstborn. For each plague meted against the Egyptians, we recite its name and remove a drop of wine from our overflowing glasses. We are taught that we lessen our joy because of the suffering of others. However justified their punishment our joy is diminished. And then some forget and lick the wine from their fingers. And others shout, “Don’t taste the plagues!” Still all return to their meals and celebrations.
This week we read, “In the middle of the night the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the first born of Pharaoh who sat on the throne to the first born of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the first born of the cattle. And Pharaoh arose in the night, with all his courtiers and all the Egyptians—because there was a loud cry in Egypt; for there was no house where there was not someone dead.” (Exodus 12:29-30)
Every Egyptian suffered the plague’s punishments, from the rulers who were ruthless in their persecution of the slaves to those who I imagine even opposed Pharaoh’s rule. The notion that a tyrant only jails those accused of justified crimes is false. Why must those held in his dungeons be punished as well? All were killed from those evil men who plot against us and agitate for our destruction to those innocents who came only to dance at a wedding.
Am I to believe that anyone racing across the tribal areas of Afghanistan and Yemen is guilty? Perhaps there was some who were only held captive and now they too suffer their rulers’ punishments. One could argue that all Egyptians were complicit. Far too many remained silent in the face of our persecution. Far too many perpetuated the system of slavery upon which their livelihoods were based.
I am unable to forget. Even the firstborn of those languishing in Egypt’s prisons were also punished. In the struggle against evil do we begin to lose the ability to distinguish between wicked and innocent?
The tradition argues that the plagues were also, and perhaps even more so, for the sake of demonstrating God’s mighty power to the Israelites. And so I ask, how many must suffer so that I can proclaim my freedom?
The innocent continue to suffer.
And Abraham pleads with God when he becomes aware of the plan to destroy the sinful cities Sodom and Gomorrah. “Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Genesis 18:25)
Dare we remain silent?
Dare we remain silent?