“Sh’lach l’cha anashim v’aturu et eretz C’na’an’ – ‘Send from yourselves men (or emissaries) to look at the land of Canaan’.
When the Torah tells us to ‘sh’lach l’cha’ or ‘lech l’cha’, to send from ourselves or go into ourselves, as in the case of Abraham’s calling, we know that something transformational is about to happen. We are now firmly entering the territory of the Book of Numbers; we can see the end of our wilderness sojourning and the outlines of our redemption in the form of the Promised Land.
Usually, when we think of the Promised Land, we think of it literally: we think of the Land of Israel. We think of our redemption being a physical reality. Today, however, I would encourage you to think of it metaphorically: the Promised Land as a place of wholeness in ourselves that we may not always be able to see but that we feel called to journey to and to intuit.
In this case, what is this Promised Land? To each individual, it will be different, but I invite us to dream about the place in which we find the fulfillment of our soul. The month of June marks LGBTQ Pride Month and today marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York. When New York police sought to repress and shut down one of the few LGBTQ-inclusive establishments in the city, during the summer of 1969, they were met with dignified resistance. It was a singular event in a turbulent time that would kick off the gay liberation movement, what we fifty years later, would call the LGBTQ community.
It is true; we have come far since then. We have attained civil rights gains, including marriage equality. Some of us from this congregation proudly took part in Iowa City’s annual Pride Parade, waving our rainbow-themed Star-of-David flag. There is much to be proud of and to celebrate.
At the same time, there is still deep learning for all of us to do. How do we uphold these civic rights? How do we create welcoming and inclusive spaces in the Jewish community for our LGBTQ siblings but perhaps most important of all, what are the profound spiritual lessons we can learn from this ‘Promised Land’, from the LGBTQ experience? I want us to dream about what the fulfillment of our souls can gift to the world; the uniquely redemptive values the LGBTQ community can share.
There is a fallacy that should be addressed first: the fallacy that LGBTQ values and family values are diametrically opposed is both pernicious and powerful. For every minority, there is that defining moment where we move from tolerance to acceptance to celebration, no longer on the basis of our difference but on the basis of our normalcy. Normalcy need not mean conformism, of course. Every minority, be it Jewish, LGBTQ 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, it is our duty to reclaim what ‘family’ means and what ‘religiosity’ means and what ‘sanctification’ means. The unique contribution of liberal religion, including our own, is the reassessment of the language that has been used to exclude and delegitimize. It is up to us to open up these definitions and unwrap their true meaning. 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 LGBTQ-inclusive space, is that we can reclaim this integrated 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, I’ve learnt a great deal from the LGBTQ community. The wisdom in the LGBTQ community is transformative. LGBTQ 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.
Towards the end of the Book of Numbers, a few parshiyot further on, the Baal Shem Tov, the 18th century founder of Chassidic Judaism, draws a powerful analogy between the journeying of the Book of Numbers and this idea of journeying into the self. By now, the Biblical narrative has shifted: the emissaries sent out at the beginning of this week’s Parashah have returned with dire reports. There has been failure, disappointment and rebellion. The Children of Israel have heard that the wilderness generation will not enter their Promised Land. Parashat Ma’sei, the last Torah portion before we enter the Book of Deuteronomy, already engenders this in the title: ‘V’ele ma’sei b’nei Yisrael’ – ‘and these are the journeys of the Children of Israel’. 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’. Just like the beginning of Numbers, in Parashat Sh’lach L’cha, we are encourage to enter the Promised Land of our souls, so too are we encouraged to exit – or ‘come out’ of our Wilderness (and our House of Bondage). One is contingent upon the other. It is a lesson our forebears had to learn; to be ready to enter shleimut, wholeness, means we have to be ready to leave behind what constrains us. What separates one from the other is fear and internalized hatred. What uplifts and sanctifies us is the knowledge that this journey of the soul is a mitzvah.
Nothing is beloved before God like an emissary sent to do a mitzvah, who risks his life for the mission to succeed… we are all emissaries to do mitzvoth; we were sent into this world by God in order to fulfil God’s commandments. Surely it would have been impossible for God’s holiness to be drawn into this world, if not for Israel’s service… as Psalm 43:3 states ‘Send Your light and Your truth and they shall lead me.
These are the words of the S’fat Emet, a famous Chassidic Torah commentary written by the Polish, early 20th century Chassidic sage, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter. Let us take courage from sending our light and truth to where it is most needed.
Let us say to the LGBTQ 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. 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.