Coming Out/Into the Promised Land

Sermon Pride Shabbat
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

Coming Out/Into the Promised Land

During last year’s Pride Shabbat, I spoke about journeying from acceptance to celebration. We commemorated the murder of a young Israeli girl during Jerusalem Pride. A similar, more devastating, sermon could be given today where we touch about the horrific tragedy of the Orlando Shooting. Yet, I am choosing not to address the tragedies that have befallen the LGBT community over the past years. Not because they are not significant – they are, and we should mourn, remember and fight – but because this should not define our sacred journey into acceptance, celebration and sanctification.

What far more illustrative of our journey as a LGBT community, is the focus on settling our promised land.

What is this promised land? To each individual, it will be different but I want us to dream about the place in which we find the fulfillment of our soul. The embrace of a loved one, the empowerment of self acceptance, the legitimization of legal equality and the sanctification of LGBT families. I want us to dream about what the fulfillment of our souls can gift to the world; the uniquely redemptive values the LGBT community can share.

There is a fallacy that should be addressed first: the fallacy that LGBT values and family values are diametrically opposed is both pernicious and powerful. It reminds me of ‘separate but equal’ rhetoric: it’s OK to be gay, but please keep it to your once-a-year Pride Parade. Not addressing the holistic scope of gay inclusion smacks of ‘NIMBY’ to me – ‘not in my backyard’. For every minority, there is that defining moment where we do move from tolerance to acceptance to celebration, not just on the basis of our difference but on the basis of our normalcy.

I don’t mean to suggest that we should all fit into a narrowly-defined, understanding of the nuclear family. Social philosophers have deconstructed and critiqued the narrative of the nuclear family. Not everyone is part of such a relationship or family unit and we are certainly not saying that they should be. Every minority, be it Jewish, LGBT or anyone else, should have that iconoclastic voice that challenges dominant cultural norms. It is what makes us part of a prophetic tradition.
On the other hand, let us work to reclaim what ‘family’ means. Family is about love, companionship, support and respect. It’s also about wrestling the narrative out of the hands of those who question our moral mission.

What should excite those of us who operate in a religious and LGBT space, is that we can reclaim the moral agenda. Our movement is a moral movement. Now that we have full legal rights and increasing (though certainly not complete) social acceptance, should we not share our unique insights with the world?

As a rabbi, theologian, as a Jew and a human being, as a mother and wife (to someone of the opposite gender, no less – please don’t hold it against him!), I’ve learnt a great deal from the LGBT community. The wisdom in the LGBT community is transformative. LGBT individuals call upon our ‘shleimut’, our sense of wholeness and peace, our capacity for integrity and authenticity. There is a sacred dimension to ‘coming out’, to opening yourself up to self-acceptance, to challenging to grow as a human being and improve our world; to this monumental journey of the self.

The Baal Shem Tov, the 18th century founder of Chassidic Judaism, draws a powerful analogy between this week’s Torah reading and this idea of journeying into the self. Parashat Ma’sei already engenders this in the title: ‘V’ele ma’sei b’nei Yisrael’ – ‘and these are the journeys of the Children of Israel’. Two verses into our reading, there’s a curious description: ‘Vayichtov Moshe et motza’eihem le’masei’hem al pi Adonai v’ele mas’eihem l’motza’eim’ – ‘And Moses wrote their stops for their travels by the Eternal’s word, and these are their travels and their stops.’
Did Moses log their journey? Why? Why is it significant to log not only their progress but also their stopping? The Baal Shem Tov teaches, that these stops-and-starts have a deeper, psychological resonance:

“The forty-two “stations” from Egypt to the Promised Land are replayed in the life of every individual Jew, as his soul journeys from its descent to earth at birth to its return to its Source.”

We are on earth to learn, to grow, to travel. Let us log our journeys, honour and celebrate them. Let us write down our dreams for the Promised Land on the tablets of our hearts.

If we look at a literal translation of the word ‘motza’eihem’ – ‘their stoppings’, it actually reads as ‘their goings-out’ or perhaps even better, ‘their coming-out’.

Parashat Ma’sei is the final portion from the Book of Numbers. The Book of Numbers is an unsettled book; it lacks some of the narrative focus and clear ideology of the other books of the Torah. Bamidbar, as it is known in Hebrew, translates as ‘wilderness’ and in a way, that feels apt. We all have to journey through our own wilderness and sometimes we get lost, and sometimes we are delayed and sometimes we need to stop and rest. But Numbers is followed on by Devarim, Deuteronomy, the proudest and most visionary book of the Torah that leads us into the Promised Land of our redemption.

Let us say to the LGBT community that this has been your Torah to the world. Your courage, love and devotion are inspiring. You have given us sacred language for coming into our own. You have reimagined the sanctity and profundity of human love and human relationships. For all those nay-sayers who argue that ‘LGBT values’ aren’t ‘family values’, they couldn’t be further from the truth: you have blessed the ‘mishpechot ha’amim’, the families of the earth, with a new vision. May we all merit to find our redemption, our shleimut, our wholeness soon, in an abundance of love and wisdom, like the waters that cover the sea.


Shabbat shalom.  

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