In our Torah portion for this week, Bylam, a popular magic man known throughout the Ancient Near East, was summoned by the Moabite King Balak to throw a curse upon the Israelites, who were camped on the Steppes of Moab. Though the Israelites meant him no harm and were just passing through on their way to Eretz Yisrael, Balak feared them and wanted them gone. Bylam ascends to the heights of Moab with Balak, and casts his gaze upon the Children of Israel. But when he opens his mouth to curse them, out comes a blessing instead: Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishkenotecha Yisrael – How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.
With great pride indeed, earlier today Steve and I marched in the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem. Though some 10,000 marchers were expected, twice the number of last year’s parade, the number of marchers actually numbered in the tens of thousands. Security was extremely tight, of course, particularly in light of the tragic and brutal murder at last year’s parade of 16-year-old Shira Banki, z”l. This year Shira’s parents came to the parade to honor the memory of their beautiful daughter, and to express solidarity with the LGBTQ community, and with all those who participated in the parade this year. One of the photos I have provided is of a huge poster at the very spot where Shira was killed last year, Washington Street and Keren Hayesod. The quote next to Shira’s picture is from Spinoza: “It is better to teach goodness than condemn evil.”
Last week Steve and I joined several of our colleagues from Hartman for a day of education to familiarize ourselves a bit better with the services provided for the LGBTQ community in Jerusalem. Everyone knows that Tel Aviv is one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world. Not so in Jerusalem. Because of the heavy religious presence here, not only in the Jewish community, but in all religious communities, the LGBTQ community has a much harder time of it regarding freedom of movement and expression, obtaining benefits and medical care, and the like, than the community in Tel Aviv. In fact at today’s parade, though some Members of Knesset were there, Isaac (Bougie) Herzog and Rachel Azaria among them, Mayor Nir Barkat was not, in order not to inflame the Orthodox community, as he explained it. While in a number of ways Mayor Barkat has been good for this city, I believe that this was a bad call. In an effort not to irritate a community that will never really be satisfied, he snubbed tens of thousands of the citizens of his city, and further rubbed salt into already festering wounds.
One of the places we visited last Monday was the main center of LGBTQ activism in Jerusalem, “Habayit Hapatuach,” “Open House for Pride and Tolerance.” Open House was the principal organizer of today’s event, but many other organizations cosponsored, the Reform Movement and the Israel Religious Action Center among them. Open House provides psychological support, education, free medical care, HIV/AIDS counseling and testing, and numerous other services. Particularly noteworthy is its outreach to LGBTQ youth in the Orthodox and Palestinian communities – young people who are particularly at risk, as we can imagine.
Open House is not a well-known entity. Nevertheless it is very much a locus of reality in the day-to-day life of Jerusalem, and LGBTQ life in particular. We are grateful to the Hartman Institute for arranging our visit there last week.
Unfortunately there are people in this world; in Jerusalem, in the United States, in Arab countries, virtually everywhere, who look upon the LGBTQ community and see it as a threat; a scourge that must be wiped off the earth; people whom God has cursed. But if they were to really look closely, and speak with people, and get to know this community, up close and personal, as it is said, they would see that in fact it is a community that God has blessed.
As Jews one of the first and most important precepts of our Torah is Genesis 2.27-28: And God created the man in God’s image; male and female God created them. And God blessed them. When Bylam looked down upon the Children of Israel, camped there upon the Steppes of Moab, he saw and understood that these were children of the Living God, and that he could not curse those whom God had blessed. We open every single one of our morning services with this phrase, to remind us to bless other people, and not curse them. “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.”
This week we begin again our yearly cycle of Torah study. The Torah portions of this week and next week concentrate on primordial history: the creation of the world and human beings, and the nature of human beings and their potential to do both good and bad (the yetzer hatov – the good inclination, and the yetzer harah – the evil inclination). These parashiyot (Torah portions) also attempt to provide an etiology for why things are the way they are. For instance: Why do snakes crawl around on their bellies, and seem so repulsive and dangerous to most humans? According to our text, the snake originally stood upright. But it manipulated the first man and woman (Adam and Eve) to give into the temptation of eating the forbidden fruit, and thus its punishment was that it was condemned to crawl around on its belly throughout all time to come. Whatever the real evolutionary reason, this is a satisfying story nevertheless, and teaches us an important moral lesson.
Along with the punishment of the snake is the punishment of the humans for giving into temptation. The Torah appears to ask: Why is it that we have to work the earth for our nourishment in this life, and why is it that women experience pain in childbirth?
The Torah’s response:
Genesis, Chapter 4
16) And to the woman, [God] said, “I am doubling and redoubling your pains of pregnancy; with pain shall you bear children, yet your craving shall be for your man, and he shall govern you.” 17) Now to the man, [God] said, “Because you hearkened to your wife and ate of the tree about which I commanded you, saying, ‘Do not eat of it,’ the soil is now cursed on your account: Only through pain shall you eat of it, as long as you live. . . 19) By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread, till you return to the earth – the earth you were taken from. . .’ (and then one of the most well-known statements of the Torah) ‘for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.'”
I am always fascinated by this section of our text, because it could be construed, and has indeed been throughout much of history, as a justification for the subordination and condemnation of women, particularly with regard to their reproductive lives. But it is particularly painful to read now at this time, in light of the recently ramped-up battle against Planned Parenthood. During the Congressional hearing last week, featuring the intense grilling of PP President Cecile Richards, the baggage of centuries upon centuries of misogyny was fired at Richards during the entire day, by mostly male members of Congress. The age-old specter growing out of this Biblical tale as it has found its way into the human psyche, which portrays the woman as the “evil temptress,” who must bear the burden of her ability to reproduce, reared its ugly head during this hearing in a way that I can only characterize as openly hostile and outrageous. Richards said in an interview after the hearing: “In this coming presidential election, Roe v Wade is on the ballot. The battle lines were drawn last week. This isn’t about Planned Parenthood or fetal tissue. . . . it’s about whether abortion is going to be legal any more in this country.”
While there is a great deal more to say on this subject, I offer this brief commentary as food for thought during this rather painful time in American politics.
As we prepare to close out the old year and ring in the new, this week also will conclude our reading of the Book of Genesis. It is a poignant coincidence that happens rather frequently in our year. Further poignancy is to be found in the conclusion to the Genesis narratives themselves, which have been marked by great struggle and conflict. The recurring patterns of generational conflict and fraternal and sororal jealousy and enmity have continued to plague the patriarchs and matriarchs of our people. Nevertheless, now the sons of Israel have effected a rapprochement with their brother Joseph in Egypt, and their father Jacob has joined them from Canaan as well. As we close the Genesis narratives this week, the family is finally together, living in peace and prosperity. The story ends happily. . . at least until next week, when “a new king (will rise up) over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. . . .”
When the ball drops on Wednesday night, most likely we all will shout “Happy New Year,” and drink a toast to a year of good health, prosperity, and peace. On this coming Shabbat morning, we will have a quieter, yet equally as joyous a moment. When we conclude the Book of Genesis we will rise, together with Jews the world over, and proclaim the words with which conclude every book of the Torah: חזק חזק ונתחזק – Hazak, Hazak, Venithazek. Some would translate this as: Be strong, be strong, and we will be strengthened! Others might render it: Be strong, be strong, and let us summon up our strength! We hear a variation of the phrase repeatedly at the end of Deuteronomy as Moses hands over the mantle of leadership to Joshua: Hazak Ve’ematz, Be strong and of good courage (Deuteronomy 32.7). Joshua in turn repeats it to the Israelites once he has assumed leadership (Joshua 1). The Biblical scholar Jeffrey Tigay cites and additional source, an abbreviated form, in the exhortation of King David’s general Joab to the Israelites as they march into battle: Hazak Venithazek, Be strong and let us summon up our strength for the sake of our people and the towns of our God (2 Samuel 10.12). Dr. Tigay points out, however, that the traditional recitation of Hazak, Hazak, Venithazek upon completion of a book of the Torah, probably reflects the Rabbinic transformation of this battle cry into the aspiration for spiritual strength and loyalty to the Torah.
We will have some hard work to do in the coming year, to confront the division and enmity that exists in our country, and to try to bind up our wounds and heal our society. It is in this spirit that I offer my own toast to the New Year, with the translation that I personally prefer upon the completion of a book of the Torah. I offer it both as an exhortation and as a prayer: חזק חזק ונתחזק- Hazak, Hazak, Venithazek – Be strong, be very strong, and we shall strengthen each other.