Justice and retribution


The story of the Israelites going free from Egypt seems simple.  As we say at the Pesah seder, “We were slaves; now we are free!”  But that brief summary masks the moral complexity of the story, with its claims and counter-claims, threats and pleas, horrific plagues and nitpicking negotiations.  In all of it, from God’s compassion for the enslaved people to the Israelites “despoiling” of the Egyptians as they leave, we see attempts at striking the difficult balance between, on the one hand, imposing just remedies on an unjust world and, on the other hand, taking vengeance on those who have done us wrong.  How do we strive for justice without demonizing those who oppose us?  How do we who know what it is like to be enslaved avoid avenging ourselves by enslaving others in turn?  How do we avoid turning into the very versions of humanity gone wrong that we struggle against?  As we read the story of the Exodus now, and when we return to it in the spring at our seders, let us strive to see the moral nuance in this simple story, letting it guide us in finding a path through the difficult choices of our own time.