Ten Plagues of Inequality

On Passover, we remember the ten plagues that were inflicted on the Egyptian people. Thousands of years later, modern-day plagues of inequality should ignite contemporary responses to combat these injustices. Many of the most vulnerable members of our society are disproportionately affected; they cannot be “passed over” or ignored, especially during this important holiday. This moral impetus has become even clearer as our society and the world has grappled with the twin modern-day plagues of the COVID-19 pandemic and renewed, widespread awareness and reckoning of racial injustice.

As we think about the ancient plagues, let us also keep in mind those who still live under the weight of modern plagues.

  1. A justice system that instills fear and divides communities does no justice at all: it must be independent and fair to foster an equal and racially equitable society. Just as the first plague of blood recalls violence and turmoil, we must take action to reform our criminal justice system so that it meets the highest ideals of society and overcomes the brokenness – the spilled blood – that began this cycle, a cycle steeped in systemic racism.
  2. Today, essential pathways to opportunity are blocked by a lack of basic shelter and affordable housing. Just as the plague of frogs transformed the Egyptians’ homes into unlivable conditions, the lack of affordable housing can make even the most basic aspects of daily life burdensome. Until more affordable housing units are created, too many people in need will experience homelessness.
  3. Today’s health care system remains out of reach to so many; millions of Americans still do not have insurance. The plague of lice reminds us that affordable, quality health care is important to have even when we are healthy, and especially when unforeseen circumstances arise. We must work to advocate for those who do not have access to health care to ensure that all Americans can receive the treatments that they need.
  4. Sadly, the plague of gun violence in America is all too familiar; guns kill nearly 40,000 Americans each year. Gun violence runs rampant in our communities, as did the wild animals in the fourth plague, but we have the power to end this scourge ourselves. We are commanded to take necessary measures to ensure the sanctity of human life and safety of our communities.
  5. Hunger is not a distant tragedy; it is present in every community. Our tradition is explicit in commanding that we feed the hungry, and we must work to make that a reality. The plague of cattle disease reminds us how important it is to ensure that all people have the resources and support needed to live free from hunger.
  6. The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Communities of Color is just one symptom of a deeper problem. Due to centuries of systemic racism, People of Color are more likely to face a range of negative health outcomes and shorter life expectancies, but are less likely to have health insurance and often face discrimination in the health care system. Just as racial inequity in public health plagues us today, so did boils plague the Egyptians when this health crisis impaired their lives and livelihood.
  7. We must all take action to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change, but we cannot lose sight of the fact that climate change most significantly affects low-income communities and People of Color. The climate disruption of the plague of hail is a reminder that it is our responsibility to take action to prevent climate disruption in communities where such events have an especially devastating impact.
  8. Our tradition speaks strongly to valuing workers’ essential dignity as well as maintaining healthy families. Just as the locusts disrupted work and resources for the Egyptians, so does the lack of paid sick days and family leave harm families and workplaces across the United States. Without a national guarantee of paid leave, workers face agonizing choices between their health and their livelihoods.
  9. Education is the key to opportunity and prosperity, and the fewer the educational resources, the more challenging it is for students to advance in society. The plague of darkness reminds us to pursue a bright future for all our children through robust public education. We cannot keep some members of our community on the margins by denying them educational opportunities.
  10. There are many structural policy changes that we can make to ameliorate economic inequality. The pain and suffering of the plague of the death of the firstborn does not remind us of any one social justice issue, but it does remind us of the importance of taking action before crises become truly dire. Increasing the minimum wage to a living wage addresses the previous nine plagues by lifting millions of people, including millions of children, out of poverty and preventing them from suffering these plagues in the first place. 

We cannot let these injustices of inequality continue. On Passover, we commit to structural change so that these issues will no longer plague millions in the United States and around the globe. As we celebrate our redemption from the land of Egypt, and of the plagues that played a role in that redemption, we cannot lose sight of the plagues that still exist today, particularly as we continue to grapple with systemic racism and a global pandemic.

If we can overcome these plagues, so many more people will be able to revel in the liberation and redemption that the Jewish people celebrate on Passover.

Learn more about Jewish social justice issues via the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism