Nothing in the Torah is coincidental. The repeated use of certain words, the choice of names, the span of time—everything is linked to a greater or deeper theological meaning. Nowhere is this more so than with numbers. Whole fields of study and schools of thought have arisen around the idea that numbers in the Torah are symbolic, meaningful and informative.
The number 40 in particular has widespread resonance in the Jewish tradition and is often meant to convey a really, really long time. Forty years is long enough for the world, or the Jewish people, or the Kingdom of Israel, to undergo thorough and revolutionary change. The flood that decimated all of humanity except for Noah and the others on his ark lasted 40 days and 40 nights. Kings such as Saul, David and Solomon were said to have reigned for 40 years, outlasting entire generations. And of course, our trek through the desert from Egypt to the Promised Land, the beginnings of which we read about this Shabbat, lasted a grueling 40 years—just enough time for all of those who had been slaves in Egypt to die out and a new generation to emerge. In all of these circumstances, the amount of time—the 40 days or nights or years that had passed—was significantly long enough to have produced a world that was markedly different from that which preceded it.
On January 22, 1973—40 years ago this month—the Supreme Court handed down a decision in the landmark case Roe v. Wade. This iconic ruling held that the due process clause of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment included a right to privacy—a right which, the Court explained, was broad and important enough to include a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion. In effect, this decision invalidated the 30 state laws then in existence limiting a woman’s access to abortion in the first trimester of her pregnancy. Abortion became legal across the U.S.
The Roe v. Wade decision significantly changed the reproductive justice landscape and it is well worth celebrating. A right was established, the era of the back-alley abortion was ended, and women’s lives have surely been saved. However, on this anniversary, even as we hail the distance we have come, we know that over the past 40 years, the revolutionary shifts promised by Roe have not yet been realized. A woman’s right to make decisions regarding her own body is still under attack in states across the country and in Congress. The year 2012 alone saw 43 state laws restricting abortion access through the imposition of arduous and unnecessary requirements, including mandatory waiting periods and counseling, stricter parental notification guidelines, invasive ultrasounds, and onerous (and medically superfluous) clinic requirements. Moreover, although an overwhelming majority of Americans support abortions in circumstances in which the mother’s mental and/or physical health is at risk or there is a serious defect in the developing fetus, that reality is not reflected in current federal health insurance plans such as Medicaid, which only permits abortion in cases of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is at risk.
In this week’s Torah portion, we read of the start of the 40-year journey from Egypt to Israel. In our secular lives, we mark the end of the first 40 years since Roe v. Wade and we begin again our fight to ensure reproductive justice and freedom for women and families across the U.S. Hopefully it will not take another four decades to establish this right firmly and permanently in law. But if so, we are ready. Let us pray that 40 years from now, on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, we will be able to look back and hail the health protections and abortion access available to women. Let us pray that 40 years from now, we will have emerged from the proverbial desert in which we wander—with purpose—today and have achieved the progress and change that women in our country need and deserve.
Sarah Krinsky is an Eisendrath Legislative Assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, DC. She is originally from Los Angeles, CA and graduated from Yale University this past May.