This week’s Torah portion recounts the last of the ten plagues: the ten wonders God displays in order to change the official status of the Israelites. Moses acts like the legal counsel, approaching the bench of a hostile government numerous times, advocating for a righteous decree. After years of being whipped to build bricks and living in poverty, it is time for the Israelites to repossess control of their bodies and their lives.
Yet, in telling the story, we tend to rush past those moments when Moses comes before Pharaoh and demands safe passage for the Israelites. We take it for granted that at least ten times Moses had to insist his way into Pharaoh’s palace chamber to stand there surrounded by armed guards and disapproving eyes…all to advocate on behalf of his people. After how many refusals would you have turned back? After how many refusals would you just have accepted the status quo?
Moses is the archetype of a process that still goes on today: protesting to the highest authorities to speak to our highest morals. He teaches that we must keep stepping forward, even when we encounter setbacks. This is often what we encounter when we seek change through the political process.
MLK experienced it in his era – appropriately being dubbed a “modern day Moses.” The world saw Moses cry “let my people go” when King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial delivering his “I Have a Dream speech.” His choice of venue was an demand to the government, it connected him to the century of appeals made to the highest courts and representatives – all the way back to the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment. He too was demanding: let my people go. Let them go forward into a better society, girded with all the tools they need to succeed. Let them be the agents of their own destiny.
Ultimately, MLK, like Moses, understood the power of the political process. In a collection of sermons, King shared this thought: “Let us never succumb to the temptation of believing that legislation and judicial decrees play only a minor role in solving this problem. Morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless.”
This sentiment is highly applicable to the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.
Now, in regards to reproductive rights, we cannot put words in King’s mouth. I don’t know how he stood on abortion. What we do know, though, is that he supported family planning, stating as much when he accepted an award from Planned Parenthood in 1966.
Yet regardless of where King stood, his words, “Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless,” resonate.
We forget what the landscape was like for women prior to 1973. Single women who became pregnant were fired from their jobs. They were sent away, out of sight, to maternity homes for unwed mothers. Married women who became pregnant were forced to carry their pregnancies to term even if they could not afford to feed that child, or if the mother was sick, or even if the fetus would never be able to live outside the womb because it had not developed the necessary organs.
The way women were treated was heartless. They had no choice in their fate. There was no trust that they could think and feel enough to make decisions for themselves.
40 years ago, Roe v. Wade changed that.
The historic decision codified what we know, what we have known for a long time: choice is the backbone of freedom. When you’re free, it means that you determine your destiny. You are the keeper of the keys.
This concept of choice stands at the center of Judaism. When Moses demands the Israelites be let out of Egyptian slavery, it is ultimately so that they may trek towards Sinai and willingly, freely, choose a better life through receiving the Torah. Even today, the Reform movement thrives on the concept of choice and creating personal meaning.
Because what is slavery? The tyrannical seizure of a person’s body and life choices. Freedom is being released into a world where one can develop their own moral compass and make decisions for him/herself.
Unfortunately, maintaining this freedom is an ongoing struggle. Just as Pharaoh would offer freedom and then revoke it, in the 40 years after Roe v. Wade, individuals and groups have tried to take back a woman’s right to choose. 40 years later, women are being forced to listen to fetal heartbeats, to pay out of pocket for simple health care screenings, and, in the most blatant seizure of her body, forced to invasive transvaginal ultrasounds.
Yet we should not be discouraged. Like Moses, like Martin Luther King, we can continue to step forward in the name of justice. We can be on the front lines. We can be diligent in making sure that women, minorities, and all others are afforded the freedom that our ancestors eventually won. We may feel like we’re standing before the Red Sea and that the challenge is insurmountable, but if we dive in, the seas of change might just part.