After each of the first seven plagues in Egypt, Pharaoh refuses to free the Israelites. But after the eighth plague, as locust devour every field and fruit tree, his advisors urge him to relent, lest all Egypt suffer ruination. Pharaoh’s response is to offer a “compromise”: he will allow the men to go out, but the women and children will be held as hostage to ensure that the men return. To which Moses responds: “We will all go, young and old, with our sons and our daughters, our flocks and our herds.”
This passage is instructive, for Moses wisely recognizes that Pharaoh’s so-called compromise is, in fact, a callous political ploy. He is not offering freedom; he merely wishes to create a diversion—which Moses rejects out of hand. Thus does this week’s Torah portion, Bo, remind us that in matters of justice, when human lives are on the line, we must never settle for half a loaf.
This message could not be more pertinent as we mark Martin Luther King Day, with our state’s lawmakers considering legislation that would add the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to Idaho’s Human Rights Act. As I write this, prominent Republicans are talking about an "Add the Words" bill that would completely gut its effectiveness by giving so-called "religious exemptions" to landlords and employers. This is worse than no bill at all, because it uses (abuses!) religion as a shield for injustice. The Hebrew prophets had a name for this: idolatry.
As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, following in the footsteps of Moses, wrote on civil rights, so, too, here: "Let us dodge no issues. Let us yield no inch to bigotry, let us make no compromise with callousness. In the words of William Lloyd Garrison: 'I will be as harsh as truth and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, to speak, or to write with moderation. I am in earnest--I will not equivocate--I will not excuse--I will not retreat a single inch--and I will be heard.'
Or to quote a less likely source, conservative Republican icon Barry Goldwater: "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."
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