Facing the Wilderness

[For the Ner Shalom Malakh, June 2009]

As I write this, it is May 26 and I am, it seems, still married in the State of California, a member of one of 18,000 clever, or lucky, or merely bewildered same-sex couples. This is a fascinating turn of events, in which an important civil right (marriage), once inconceivable, became conceivable, then statutorily withheld, then constitutionally interpreted into reality, then snuffed out again by vote of a simple majority.

California will come around, I think; it probably already has since last year's Prop 8 vote. Same-sex couples who have just met, or who haven't met yet, or who are still nervous abotu commitment will someday reasonably soon, I suspect, be able to marry (for better or for worse).

But there's another scary element of this week's California Supreme Court decision that we should note. For the first time in California history, a simple majority of voters was allowed to explicitly take away a constitutional right (even if newly recognized) from an unpopular minority. As Jews this should worry us plenty.

As Americans, we take for granted our Constitutional rights despite seeing them get chipped away as quickly as they are articulated. We take comfort that here minorities are protected from the tyranny of the majority through our federal and state constitutions. But in California, as of this week, anyone is fair game. Jews of course have long experience with such vagaries. In every country we've wandered into we've had Golden Ages and we've had our rights removed by whim. It shouldn't surprise us.

So how do we handle new situations like this? How do we remain calm but poised? I think there is a nice hint in the first parashah of Bamidbar - the Book of Numbers, that we began reading last week. Bamidbar means "in the wilderness" and that's where the book opens. The Children of Israel are in the wilderness - a landscape without landmarks - and God commands them to take a census, by tribe and clan, of all the battle-ready men. This always struck me as an odd story - census taking in an unknown and potentially dangerous setting.

But now I look at it this way. Every moment is wilderness. The future carries no landmarks. We don't know what it will bring, but it keeps arriving at our doorsteps without pause. So when facing the new and unknown, take a census. Count your strengths. What are your special skills? Your talents? Your gifts? What have you gotten from your ancestral house? Does your DNA permit you to do some things others can't? What have you learned from your non-biological ancestors - the people who taught you and loved you and do so still? Do you make music or poetry? Are you good with numbers or with your hands or with children? Are you a good talker? Are you a good listener? Are you a good organizer?

So when facing the unknown, figure out what you do know. In a landscape without landmarks, become the landmark. Remember your strengths. Count them, so that you can count on them, and so that we can count on each other. Sure, every new moment carries risk. But let us approach the wilderness with our banners high, like the Children of Israel in the Sinai Desert or the Plains of Moab. May we know who we are, and let no one tell us otherwise.