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Pink Pussy Hats and the Promised Land

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This week marks the first anniversary of President Trump’s inauguration and, just as significant, the symbolic start of the current “resistance” movement in this country. Last year’s historic Women’s March in Washington and its “sister marches” around the country drew millions of supporters, many of whom had never participated in a rally or protest before but were drawn to the cultural reckoning they thought was imminent.

A second Women’s March is called for this Saturday. Among the expected crowds are those who are newly emboldened in the fight for women’s issues, largely because of the abuses that have been exposed in the #MeToo movement that’s loudly been confronting sexual assault and the imbalance of power between men and women in this country.

I find the timing of these two symbolic events — the anniversary of the inauguration of a president who has been criticized for his treatment of women (to put it mildly), and the subsequent coming together of an oppressed group to reject their oppressors — to be particularly striking for an unexpected reason: I see a direct connection between these two occurrences and this week’s Torah portion.

This week’s parsha, Bo — the section of the Torah that Jews around the world read this week —  will be familiar to those who know the story of Passover. I’ll give you a quick summary of what I think is the most important part: God brings down the last three plagues on the Egyptian people (locusts, darkness and the slaying of the first born), which moves Pharaoh to finally free the enslaved Israelites.

But before they hightail it out of Egypt, God commands them to slaughter a lamb — an Egyptian idol — and to put its blood on public display on the doorposts of their homes. The slaughter of something so sacred to their taskmasters signified the Israelites’ rejection of the value system of their oppressors.

Why was this act of defiance necessary? Perhaps it’s because, as Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels suggests, getting out of Egypt — the thing Jews celebrate every year at Passover seders — was really just a short-term solution to slavery.

After all, physically removing yourself from the oppressor is just the first step to liberation. You have to tear down the whole framework or reprogram your brain to truly be emancipated from the beliefs and ideologies that enslaved you. It’s not as simple as the line we recite each Passover, “once we were slaves, now we are free.” There is chaos and growth and retreat and backlash and uncertainty and poignancy and relief along the way from slavery to freedom. (Witness the long road from slavery in the U.S. to the Civil Rights Movement to where we are today.) In other words, it takes time.

There is additional precedent elsewhere in the Exodus story that suggests the Israelites first needed to be freed from their slave mentality in order to reach the Promised Land. Maimonides suggests this is why we wandered in the desert for 40 years — we needed to remove ourselves an entire generation from the shackles of slavery to be ready to receive our freedom, to have the maturity to understand it. 

This public rejection by oppressed people of something once practiced by those in power — in this biblical example, slavery — reminds me of what we are now witnessing in this #MeToo moment.

Today, an unprecedented number of women are coming forward with their stories of sexual harassment and assault at the hands of powerful bosses, and, for the most part, they are being heard and believed. Many of the men responsible for these abuses are paying for their crimes, either by being fired, prosecuted, or publicly shamed.

Also, as I write this, women across the country are dusting off their pink “pussy hats” and making signs for marches this weekend. Systems are changing and people are paying attention. Lambs are being slaughtered all around us. It feels like we’ve finally reached that cultural reckoning — or, at least, this long-awaited reckoning is finally just around the corner.

And yet, I worry that it may be some years before we reach this elusive gender-egalitarian Promised Land. There are still groups of people who don’t see anything wrong with the way things were — or are — and will likely need to retire, die, or be impeached or fired before we can see any sustainable, meaningful change when it comes to gender parity.

As I read this week’s parsha and considered how far the Israelites had to go before they were ready for the Promised Land, I wondered: Where exactly are American women on this journey? Are we about to enter the Land of Israel — or are we just gathering our possessions and fleeing Egypt? Could it be that we will have to spend the next four decades or so examining what was exposed by the #MeToo movement — grappling with it, toppling it, and figuring out how to build a just and equal society?

In spite of the amazing advances for which we have waited so long — and, at the same time, seem to have come so quickly — how long will it be before we actually see advancements on issues like harassment-free workplaces and true gender parity in pay? How many years until women can feel safe riding the subway alone, or college students can count on their campuses to protect them from sexual assault?

As someone who was born after the women’s movement in the ’70s started making gains, the prospect that it’s already 2018 and we might only be at the tip of something is terribly disappointing.

It’s said that the Torah holds up a mirror to modern life but, in this case, I’m unwilling to accept this timeline if it means another 40 years. For reasons of my own impatience and self-interest — and in the interest of my two young daughters — I’m looking for ways to do whatever I can to speed this next part up, no matter how many symbols, institutions, or metaphorical lambs we have to slaughter. I hope you’ll join me. I really don’t think we can wait another generation. Let’s march into the Promised Land now.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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