Seeking a More Perfect Union
As we read the opening verses of the second book of the Torah, Shemot, the narrative provides an fascinating counterpoint to the peaceful transfer of power we witnessed today. This central feature of our democracy sits at the core of our national identity, and has an enormous impact on our ability to rely on the freedoms guaranteed by the documents that established the United States. When viewed through the lens of Torah, today’s events take on even more meaning.
The story of Moses, the most thoroughly developed character in the entire Bible, begins in the shadow of a tyrannical edict. Pharaoh, concerned with the potential growing strength of the descendants of Israel, orders midwives to murder any males infants born to Hebrew mothers. In ancient monarchies, the disparity between royalty and commoner and between wealthy and poor was typically a vast chasm. While the birth of the Jewish nation described in Shemot doesn’t directly challenge the foundational inequity of such systems, it does bring an original moral voice to the vision of what society could and should look like.
In fact, Moses’ first act as an adult outside the walls of Pharoah’s house is to bear witness to an act of brutal violence visited upon a powerless slave, and to take it upon himself to stop it. Even Moses’ survival can be attributed to an act of morally driven civil disobedience, as the midwives charged with killing him refused to take part in such crimes. There is a sense in these stories, which is later made explicit through the eventual revelation of G-d’s commandments, that humans do have fundamental rights like those described in our own Declaration and Constitution. That the fundamental state of human life is not found in slavery or suffering, but in commitments to society and family, to moral action, and in devotion to the divine.
The same core values are generally represented in our society today. However, it was not long ago that our nation failed to extend fundamental civil rights to all citizens, including the right to vote. I’ve walked across the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama – the same bridge that Congressman John Lewis was beaten on while seeking civil rights and freedom for his people. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel become one of my heroes that day – he described marching with Martin Luther King Jr. across that bridge as “praying with [his] feet.” All those who marched offer clear examples of the strength, courage, and fortitude that Moses and midwives demonstrate in our people’s foundational texts.
We learn in Pirkei Avot that, “it is not your responsibility to complete the work, and you are not free to withdraw from it, either.” No one expects a society to be perfect in its ability to provide rights and security to all its citizens. The Torah and Judaism offer paths that, if we hold them closely, lead us in the right direction. When we think about the peaceful transfer of power that occurred today, we can hold closely to the knowledge that our own society seeks the same morality as our faith.