Pursuit of justice must include justice within our ranks

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Rabbi Noah Arnow

In the black and white photo, the couple looked comfortable, stylish even. They were Jews who lived in Berlin during the Shoah who betrayed the hiding places of other Jews to the Gestapo. The photo and just the briefest caption is part of an outdoor exhibition on Berlin during World War II at the Topography of Terror, a museum in Berlin on the site of what was Gestapo headquarters. 

I’ve seen this photo twice now. The image, and the story, but not their names, stick in my memory. They were killed, by someone, at some point, I think; I don’t remember by whom. What would justice have looked like for them? And who should have administered it? 

Jews killing other Jews, or even just punishing Jews, would have been hard to stomach and could have brought sardonic joy to the Nazis. A midrash or legend on the ninth plague — darkness — speaks to this situation. 

Many Israelites surely wanted to leave Egypt and slavery. Others probably had found ways of collaborating with the Egyptians to make a comfortable life for themselves at the expense of their Jewish brethren. 

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The midrash suggests that God was unwilling to redeem the sinning and collaborating Israelites but also unwilling to let them remain alive in Egypt. So God has a conundrum: “If I bring a plague upon these sinners in public, and they perish, the Egyptians will say, ‘Just as God brought plagues upon us, so does God bring them upon Israel.’ ” 

Thus, the Egyptians would be able to say, “The plagues aren’t really targeting us!” 

“Therefore,” the midrash says, “God brought upon the Egyptians the plague of three days of darkness, during which the Israelite sinners perished so that the Israelites could bury their dead and their enemies would not see them doing so, and Israel would praise God for this.”

God dispenses “divine justice” to these collaborators and spares the rest of the Israelites the embarrassment of needing to acknowledge to the Egyptians the guilty Israelites in their midst. God also prevents the Egyptians from ducking responsibility and saying that the plagues aren’t addressed to them, but are natural phenomena targeting everyone. 

This midrash is about balancing justice and honesty: God wants justice but wants it kept quiet for the time being. The acknowledgement of the existence of disloyal Israelites would have been too much for everyone at that moment, much like publicizing the existence of Nazi-collaborating Jews would have been — and still feels — very painful. 

While the impulse to cover over Jewish wrongdoing comes naturally, the Shoah and the Exodus are particular and specific. They should be the exceptions, not the rule. 

Our usual tendency should be to expose to sunlight our internal communal embarrassments. This is how we honor those who have been victims of wrongdoing. We are not so fragile as not to be able to take it. If we want to be people, and a nation, who strive for justice, we have to seek justice within and for ourselves as well, and not only for others.