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December 22, 2010

While your neighbor bleeds

Parashat Shemot-Vaera (Exodus 1:1-9:35)

http://www.jewishjournal.com/torah_portion/article/while_your_neighbor_bleeds_20101222

At the beginning of Shemot, when Jacob’s offspring were enslaved, oppressed and abused, where were the people who dared to speak truth to power? Where were theconsumers who demanded that Egyptian products be free from slave labor?

Alas, the world didn’t work that way then. Few stood up against the mighty overlords. We praise the exceptions, like midwives Shifrah and Puah, who defy Pharaoh’s deadly order (Exodus 1:15-21). Fewer still spoke out about how Egypt’s products were made; most Egyptians did not think twice about the morality of slave or child labor. Few if any cared about how much Egypt’s military-industrial complex profited from slavery, even though this cheap source of income fed the fires of Pharaoh’s ever-expanding conquests.

Well, that is until Moses, Aaron and Miriam came onto the scene. Slowly but surely, employing ever-changing strategies, these Israelite leaders displayed God’s moral power at its height. And the world was changed forever.

Lo ta’amod al dam rei-acha — don’t stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds (Leviticus 19:16).

When oppression’s long arm reached the Israelites, did anyone pause to remember all those who died? Seventy B’nei Yisrael (children of Israel) entered Egypt (Exodus 1:5). The post-exodus shekel census counts 603,550 men of fighting age (Exodus 38:26). If we posit a similar number (600,000) of same-aged women, and include at least two children per family (1.2 million) and we add in men and women who were too old or infirm to be of fighting age (200,000), we may infer that roughly 2.5 million people exited Egypt in the Exodus.

The Torah’s own narrative leads us to marvel at this exponential population explosion; Midrash Exodus Rabba suggests it required a miraculous set of sextuplets for every pregnancy. Yet we forget that for each generation miraculously born during the Israelites’ 430 years in Egypt (Exodus 12:40-41), previous generations were decimated. How many Israelites lost their lives in slave labor, from abuse by taskmasters, while supporting the army, or from shortened life spans attributable directly to their status as the invisible many? Who mourns them? We might pause to pay tribute to all the lives lost. We might pledge lo ta’amod, that we will not stand by while others bleed.

As this secular year rolls into the next, we will be besieged by Top 10 lists. Top 10 Movies. Top 10 Electronic Gadgets. Top 10 Most Newsworthy Events. Will anyone compile a list of the Top 10 Conflicts Most Likely to Become the Next Genocide?

Although it won’t appear on the cover of Rolling Stone, Jewish World Watch (JWW) did compile such a list. JWW reviewed and collected material from an array of human rights reports and news sources, creating a genocide risk assessment that placed Congo among the ignominious top 10. The atrocities in Congo just keep escalating; like during Egyptian slavery, the violence and death are almost incomprehensible. Yet according to JWW and the aid agency International Rescue Committee:

• 5.4 million civilians have been killed by war-related violence, hunger and disease since 1998;
• up to 45,000 continue to die each month;
• 2 million have been internally displaced;
• 900,000 civilians have been newly displaced just since January 2009;
• hundreds of thousands of women and girls have reportedly been raped.

Congo is one country where our voices can be heard. We are unwitting participants in this war, implicated by the phones in our pockets and computers on our desks. The armed groups perpetrating the rapes and violence are funded by an estimated $144 million annual trade in tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold. These minerals go directly into the components of electronic products that we use every day, from our iPods to our BlackBerrys.

How do we — children and grandchildren of the post-Holocaust generation, descendants of Egyptian slaves — respond to this conflict? Rabbi Harold Schulweis teaches, “To be Jewish is to care for the world. Torah does not say ‘love thy Jewish neighbor’; it says ‘love thy neighbor.’ ” Similarly, Torah does not allow us to stand idly by while our non-Jewish neighbor bleeds, because we are commanded to stand up whenever any neighbor bleeds.

The 21 largest electronics companies are poised to accept a campaign committing them to source their minerals to the mine of origin. JWW is part of a coalition of stakeholders influencing and directing the Conflict-Free Minerals designation and the international oversight process. Our community must demand an end to the use of “conflict minerals.”

Lo ta’amod al dam rei-acha — don’t stand idly by while our neighbors bleed.

How will you answer your descendants? Take a moment to remember the generations of Israelites who died in the service of Pharaoh’s bloody war machine. Then be like Shifrah and Puah, the two Egyptian midwives who refused to stand idly by. Go to jewishworldwatch.org to take the Conflict-Free Minerals Pledge.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes is the spiritual leader at Congregation Or Ami, a Reform synagogue in Calabasas. He blogs at rabbipaul.blogspot.com.

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