This week we begin to read about the ten plagues in Egypt. Although each plague is unique, there is a common script to all of them: God tells Moshe to warn Pharaoh of the upcoming plague. Pharaoh is unmoved by the threat. The plague comes. Egypt is severely impacted, discomforted or wounded by the plague. Finally Pharaoh submits to Moshe and agrees to free the Jews. Moshe in turn prays to Hashem to remove the plague. As soon as Hashem hears Moshe’s prayers and removes the plague, Pharaoh changes his mind and refuses to free the Jews.
The repetition of this script highlights Pharaoh’s intransigence. Even when it appears as if Pharaoh will be flexible, he does not follow through on those plans. One of the reasons Pharaoh acts this way is because he is not used to accountability. As the king (and deity) in Egypt, Pharaoh never had to report or answer to anyone. One of the reasons Hashem gives for bringing the plagues is so that Pharaoh and Egypt will know that Hashem is the only true God. When Pharaoh is forced to free the Jews, and especially when he sees his army drown in the sea (in next week’s Parsha), Pharaoh is forced to come to terms with the fact that he is accountable to Hashem, and Hashem has found him liable for punishment.
Judaism emphasizes accountability. The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot teaches:
Akavia the son of Mahalalel would say: Reflect upon three things and you will not come to the hands of transgression. Know from where you came, where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give a judgement and accounting.
A by-product of our free will is accountability. We are responsible for our actions and will be held accountable for what we do (and don’t do). Though Pirkei Avot is clear about our accountability at the conclusion of our lives in this world, what is sometimes more abstract, and sometimes more difficult to find, is accountability during our lifetime. The Talmud records that upon the death of the great sage Rav, Mar Shmuel lamented that “the person whom I feared (ie and to whom I felt accountable) is no longer with us.”
We all have responsibilities. In regards to certain responsibilities it is clear to whom we might be accountable. We are accountable to our spouses and to our children. We are accountable to our friends and to society. We may be accountable to our employers or employees. And of course we are accountable to Hashem.
But in other ways we can avoid accountability. Modern society celebrates freedom. Part of that freedom is the freedom to avoid accountability. Accountability is often absent when we are looking to grow or push ourselves beyond our current limits. In these cases, there may not be any external expectations. No one is expecting or dependent on this growth, and so no one will ask you where it is if it’s absent.
This is the genius of having a chavrutah. When you are on a journey with someone else, you are now accountable to that other person. I urge everyone to find a chavrutah to whom you are accountable when it comes to Torah study. If you are looking for a chavrutah, please contact Rabbi Frieberg, Rabbi Laredo or me and we will try to pair you up.
The same is true regarding exercise. It is easier to stick to a regimen when you have a partner, with whom you share the experience and to whom you are accountable to follow through. Almost two years ago I talked about running a(nother) half marathon. Thus far it never came to be, mostly because I made up excuses and never held myself accountable. That is about to change. I have signed up to run the Jerusalem Half Marathon as part of a program called Rabbis Can Run. I am part of a group of a dozen North American Rabbis who are training together to run. This commitment has just been made much more real now that I have shared it in a public forum. I decided to be a part of this program because it is important for me to spend time on my health, to set goals and achieve them, and to be held accountable. I hope that my journey helps others appreciate the importance of these values too.