“Few are guilty, but all are responsible” - Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
When we read of the plagues that struck Egypt in the book of Sh’mot (Exodus), it's hard not to feel for the many Egyptians who suffered the wrath of God’s anger. Surely not all of them served as taskmasters. Many may have even disagreed with Pharaoh’s hatred of the Israelites. Why must they all suffer? Why couldn’t God just punish Pharaoh and those who agreed with him and spare the innocent Egyptians?
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously wrote, “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.” He first taught this in, The Prophets, Heschel’s exploration of what inspired the Bible’s masters and teachers of morality to press the people to form a “community not indifferent to suffering, impatient with cruelty and falsehood, and continually concerned for God and every man.” To Heschel’s mind, Pharaoh and his ilk may have been guilty of enslaving and mistreating the Israelites but all of the Egyptian people, even those innocent of the ugliest of crimes, were responsible for the suffering that happened right before their eyes.
Following the election of President Donald Trump, many progressives and activists have carried and called out the banner, “Not My President.” They do so to distance themselves from the “carnage” that President Trump has wreaked upon our country and our values. It’s as if separating ourselves from the president and his policies somehow protects us from responsibility for his election and subsequent actions.
But alas, “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”
He IS our president and no matter how hard we worked against his campaign of hatred, bigotry and misogyny we are still responsible for where we are today. The choice we have to make is what are we going to do with that responsibility. The Egyptians chose to ignore it. Those who were not intimately involved with the subjugation of the Israelites collectively said, “Not My Pharaoh!” thereby nullifying any responsibility they might have felt for the pain and suffering of the Israelites.
In our time we too have a choice: Will we insist that he’s not our president and it’s not our fault or will we accept responsibility for the tremendous pain and suffering our country is feeling and fight back? Will we allow our president to subjugate entire communities of people while we stand by or will we show up, stand up and speak out? Will we be plagued by the consequences of inaction or will we make sure that our president knows that he IS our president and we will hold him accountable for his words and actions.
At the end of his term, he may be guilty, but we will all be responsible.