I’m pretty sure that we have had those childrearing moments, when we yell to our feuding siblings in the back of the car, “That’s it, we’re not going to the movie...we’re going straight home now!” One child inevitably says “But, I didn’t do anything.” Do all of them deserve the same consequence? This question becomes magnified in a classroom, and, ever more, in a society.
The Torah reading for this week (Exodus 10:1-13:16), recounting the narrative that is central to Passover, has been the source of many discussions and commentaries around the concepts of collective punishment and retributive justice. The text describes the last three plagues and the Exodus from Egypt. I have always found this a very disturbing text. Why should all the Egyptians suffer the consequences of a tyrannical Pharoah. Were they all complicit? It is interesting to see how Jewish tradition handles these sorts of difficult moments in a text. And, though, an ancient text, the Torah and its commentaries can be a spring board for our own contemporary conversations about some of the very same sorts of behaviors and reactions to them.
Early commentators tried to understand and to give justifications for the killing of the first born of people who were not connected to Pharaoh. They said that the ordinary people also oppressed the Jewish slaves and thus were deserving of the severe punishment. One of our first graders mused this week “I wonder if the ordinary Egyptians were mad at Pharoah for causing all these problems?” A great question – one I haven’t seen in the commentaries – but one that shows a mature ability to think of different perspectives and feelings.
The Rabbis who created the Passover seder as we know it, made sure to add the ritual of removing a drop of wine from our glasses as we name each plague. The rationale behind this ritual is that we should not rejoice in the loss of lives (even of our enemies). A modern writer, has restated the problem as one of collective responsibility rather than of collective punishment. She notes, perhaps the only way to understand the initial phrase about killing the innocent with the powerful is that everyone is ultimately responsible for the oppression of others – some by their actions (Pharoah) and others by their silence.
I am still troubled by the notion of collective punishment. The fact that the commentaries grapple with this in every generation tells me that this idea of collective punishment runs counter to deeply held Jewish values about the dignity of all human life, and I’m inspired by the fact that Judaism allows for this sort of struggle with texts and nuanced understanding of the human condition.
At the end of the day, when my kids were arguing in the back of the car, my better self knew that I should never give the same consequence to the child who appeared to be the victim as to the child who seemed to be the perpetrator...and yet there were many times when I said “you are all misbehaving – you for starting the argument, and you for continuing it and escalating.” It was rare that the third would just sit quietly. Indeed, they all may have been responsible for the seeming misbehavior of one child. We just needed to turn around the car and all suffer that consequence. Are times when collective punishment is justified?