Several weeks ago, I received an email from husband/wife rabbi friends announcing the arrival of their firstborn child, a son, after many years of disappointment. The proud father wrote, “We honor the miracle of IVF and thank God for the miracle of childbirth at our late stage in life.”
A Modern Orthodox rabbi friend and his physician wife similarly welcomed a baby boy two years ago, after having long since given up the hope that they would become parents.
“Hashem,” said the new mom, “evidently has a sense of humor…we will be ready for retirement when our son is ready for college!”
All of us who have welcomed precious children into our lives, whether our own or those of close friends and family members, know the fierce love and protective instincts that these small people engender. Thus I find that a sense of dread overtakes me when Parashat Bo occurs each year in our Torah cycle. This section of text, known as “the Plague Narratives” and begun last week in Parashat Vayera, is painful for those contemporary readers of Torah who cannot help but become increasingly horrified by the thought of the human suffering which must have accompanied each plague as it overtook the land of Egypt. What cumulative terror must have visited the Egyptians as they suffered through the horrific roll call of plagues? The entire population must have been completely traumatized, even before the ninth plague of three terrifying days of complete darkness descend. But the worst is yet to come:
In the middle of the night Adonai struck down all the first-born [sons] 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 12:30)
I believe that this narrative is meant to shock us, to wound our sensibilities, and to knock us out of our complacency. The “loud cry in Egypt” reminds us that all people suffer, and the same Torah that celebrates our redemption through God’s outstretched arm also asks that we not stand idly by the blood of our neighbor (Leviticus 19:16). Pharaoh’s heart was hardened against his own people’s anguish until, at last, the final plague arrived in his own home.
Are there loud cries in our world today to which we must respond, modern-day plagues that call out for us to intervene? I keep circling back to those first-born sons, perhaps longed for, like the sons of my dear friends. Many were children, babies even. The death of innocents is never acceptable, and we should be shocked, deeply wounded, and spurred to action when we hear of it.
And hear of it we do. The developed world has become alarmingly aware of the plague of gender inequality, and we must not stand idly by. Tragically, while first-born sons (and all sons) in many parts of the developing world continue to be cherished, baby girls in these lands are too often unwanted, and I suggest that until the entire world values all of its children equally, humanity has not yet achieved true liberation.
As journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn reported in their book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, “gendercide” in the developing world has killed more girls in the last 50 years — only because they were female — than were killed in all of the battles of the 20th century. More girls are killed today in what is termed “routine gendercide” in any one decade than people were slaughtered in all of the genocides of the 20th century. This statistic should give us Jews pause, as we know a thing or two about genocide.
Half the Sky tells the heartbreaking, personal stories of unwanted girls whose lives are as desperate as were the lives of our ancestors who suffered the cruel bonds of slavery. But as the book details, with a little of the world’s attention, a modern-day miracle occurs: The shackles of injustice shatter.
Let us not stand idly by the blood of the millions of girls and women who are unloved, mistreated, abandoned, enslaved, and even killed because of their gender. Let us vow together to create a world in which no one’s hearts are hardened against innocent boys and girls and where all children are loved and cherished.