Every once in a while, one reaches a point of no return. This week, we read in parashat Shelakh that it happened to the People of Israel. Some of the discontent and factionalizing was tolerable – they complained for meat instead of manna and got an influx of quail (spoiler alert: too much quail is not good for you). The gossip about Moses caused a travel delay and a temporary scary case of leprosy for Miriam, but she recovered, and nothing worse transpired.
But anyone who could read the larger signs of social disfunction would not have been surprised to read this week’s Torah reading: bad goes to worse, and some ruptures cannot be repaired quickly – or, maybe, at all.
On the edge of the Promised Land, on the cusp of a life settled, secure and perhaps even happy, our ancestors chose to vote against their own interests. They gave in to fear and, encouraged by groupthink, panicked. The former slaves were still unable to think in terms of freedom, and so they remained, in their souls, enslaved.
Today the highest court in the U.S. proved its corruption in its overturning of the Roe V Wade case. The implications for the fate of other laws decided similarly, and the entire concept of stare decisis – we cannot know at this moment but we might feel as the leaders Joshua and Caleb did, watching the Israelites take a great step backward from their own social peace and prosperity. What more self-damaging acts are these people capable of? And worse, how many more other people will they endanger in their own rush to self-destruction?
Today is a point of no return for the Israelites. They are going backward; it will be another generation that finally is healthy enough psychologically to act for the good of the community. These poor Israelites have been too damaged to imagine happiness, and thus they have mandated misery.
This need not be a point of no return for reproductive rights. Roe V Wade should have been codified into law before now, and now is the time to demand it. Our people are not all enslaved to misery; we are a diverse group, for better and for worse, and the Jews know how to keep our eyes on the path, and look for the holy. Right now, when we feel most threatened, we dare not give in to false groupthink. The world is not ending. There is room for the doing of the most important mitzvot of all: that of defending each other’s right to personal bodily safety and autonomy.
Not falling into despair at this moment requires a narrow focus upon practical mitzvot that you can do. Practical mitzvot at this moment require empathy. As it is said, rich women are always able to get an abortion; now is the time to reach out to the most vulnerable members of our society. As you are able, contact your representatives and pressure them to create law. As you are able, join in standing with Planned Parenthood, which will, I am afraid, now come under physical attack. As you are able, share words of love with those who are most afraid.
All the mob died in the wilderness, killed by their own refusal to sanctify life and hope. Joshua and Caleb survived the wilderness with their vision intact. Everyone under twenty years of age survived too. May we hold on to the childlike vision of belief in each other and in the future home of safety and peace we know is possible.
Courage, my comrades. Even as we continue to be forced to wander this wilderness, we must hold hands and wander it together, looking for the moments of holiness we can always, always create and cherish.