In the wake of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill and Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s threats against trans children and their families, Rabbi Steven delivers a passionate drash connecting the oppression of the LGBTQ+ community to the soul-crushing slavery our ancestors were born into which obscured the truth of their identity as bearers of the image of God. This sermon was originally delivered at the Friday Night Shabbat service on March 25th. You can also listen to it in podcast form on the latest Shabbat Replay on Contact Chai or watch it on our YouTube.
I have to be honest, I am sitting with a lot of feelings that are making it hard to lean into the peace of Shabbat. About a month ago, I mentioned the Don’t Say Gay bill — a piece of legislation in Florida that would prohibit educators from talking about LGBTQ issues in the classroom. Since then it has passed the House, it has passed the Senate, and will soon be signed by Governor DeSantis. I am angry. I am sad. I’m tired of fighting the same battle that we as queer people have been fighting for my entire life, of feeling like every step forward is met with a disproportionate push back. And Florida’s bill is just one of many.
This year, lawmakers have proposed a record 238 bills that would limit or curtail the rights of LGBTQ folks in this country. For comparison’s sake, less than 200 bills in total were filed last year. That’s an average of 3 bills per day. A little over half of them specifically target the trans community. These bills include measures that would restrict the discussion of gender and sexuality in schools, limit trans people’s ability to play sports from grade school to college, ban trans people from using the bathroom that corresponds to their gender, limit or ban gender-affirming health care (and crimilize those who provide it), and permit institutions to discriminate against LGBTQ folks on religious grounds.
This is, of course, a good time to remind folks that Judaism explicitly prohibits discriminating against the LGBTQ community, for we are both prohibited from doing anything that would endanger the life and wellbing of another person and we are commanded to uphold the fact that everyone is a reflection of the divine image. To practice our religion freely means to live in a country that respects the dignity of all people.
Yet these bills hinge on arguments of religious freedom, family values, and children’s welfare while simultaneously denying the truth claims of our religion, the integrity of our families, and what we know to be best for our LGBTQ children. So I am angry, I am sad, I am tired, and – as these lawmakers find novel ways to embed discrimination into the fabric of this country through school boards, court orders, and executive action – I must admit that I’m beginning to feel a bit hopeless. I imagine some of you are, too.
And in this way, these 238 repressive pieces of legislation like Florida’s Don’t Say Gay bill — regardless of whether they succeed or fail — have achieved their purpose: to make us feel less than, to make us doubt our ability to change this world for the better, to make us question our worth. How do we maintain our dignity at a moment that actively conspires against it?
Our tradition has something to say about that. In the narrative arc of the Torah, the Israelites have just completed the mishkan – the portable synagogue and community center that they will carry with them for the next forty years of wandering through the wilderness – and are in the process of directing the people who will care for it. We are told that Aaron and his sons will serve as priests, maintaining the sacrificial system that will serve as the primary interface between the people and God. The past few chapters have been devoted to long and detailed instructions on how they will dress, what they need to prepare, and the content and quantity of each sacrifice. We have finally arrived at the moment when Aaron, freshly ordained, will assume his duties as high priest. This is the moment: God is present, the people have gathered, the tools and materials are ready, and – he doesn’t move. Moses says: K’rav el ha’mizbeach. Aaron, approach the altar. This is the task you have prepared for. Do it.
The rabbis take this seemingly banal interaction and ask: Why did Aaron hesitate? He has been given clear instructions. He is dressed in his priestly uniform. He has everything he needs to do his job. Yet, despite all of these external signs of readiness, the rabbis recognize that he did not feel worthy of this sacred task in his heart. We have to remember that Aaron was born into slavery. Most of his life has been spent in a context that taught him to undervalue himself and deny his own worth. He has been overworked, underfed, and dehumanized. And even though he has made the physical journey from slavery to freedom, even though he has been designated by God for this particular and sacred task, even though it might appear to everyone who looks at him that he’s doing just fine… Aaron is still struggling to untangle his self-image from the vision of himself that was shaped by decades of degradation. It takes Moses, beckoning him to the altar, to help him take the first step toward overcoming his doubt.
I want to be clear: Moses calling Aaron to the altar is a radical act, for it asserts the bold and courageous truth of his dignity against a world that has taught him to deny it. It is a statement of faith that reaches back to the very foundation of our tradition, encoded in the first chapters of the Torah – that each and every one of us is a reflection of the divine, a being of inherent worth and incredible ability. It is no small feat. But at a time that would have us believe we are less than, radical action is required.
I sincerely believe that if you are alive at this moment, it is because you have a unique and sacred purpose that is needed to help heal this world. And we also find ourselves in a moment that pushes us toward hopelessness and despair. I get it. Every time I open up the news, I get it. But believing in our smallness, when we are called toward greatness, will only allow for those in power to enact violence against the most marginalized – which includes people in our own communities and our own families. This is personal. We all have a stake in this.
Our tradition tells us: when given the choice to affirm or deny the dignity of other people, we choose dignity every single time. This is a radical act. Radical because it moves against a society that encourages us to undervalue or devalue other human beings. Radical because it pushes against the instinct to do nothing (which is the easy option, and the option that those in power would most like us to take). Radical because it requires us to be big and bold. And I don’t necessarily mean those things that we might think of right away when I say big and bold. Here are three things that I feel are radical acts that help me choose life.
The first is anger. Despite being taught my whole life to shy away from anger, I’ve learned that when harnessed in the name of justice it can be a life-giving and life-affirming force for change. Make that radical choice: allow yourself to get angry. Get angry that rates of suicide and depression are increasing among LGBTQ children. Get angry that 2022 is already the most violent year to date for our trans and genderqueer siblings. Get angry that lawmakers are using their office to pursue discriminatory legislation, like the Don’t Say Gay bill, rather actually protect our families and the lives of our children. Take that righteous indignation and pour it into action. Protest. Advocate. Call your legislators. Vote. Good lord, run for office. Each of these are holy acts that our tradition obligates us to perform, as powerful and as essential as prayer.
But fire without kindling will burn out. Recognizing the blessings in our lives can be the kindling that keeps our vitality stoked, especially when our anger threatens to crowd out other feelings that give us life. I have to admit something, I’ve gotten into the perhaps annoying habit lately of thanking my friends for their friendship. But why not? What they have given me, and what they continue to give me, is a gift that is so easy to take for granted but – when we actually stop to think about it – is something so special: a gift of time, of thought, and of presence. So make the radical choice of gratitude. We don’t say thank you enough. Perhaps we are scared that by showing our appreciation for another person, we open ourselves up to rejection. There is some truth to this. In gratitude, there is vulnerability – to say to another, you have given me something that on my own I did not have. But with that risk comes the reward of affirming that the other has offered something to you and to the world that was needed, was lacking, was essential.
Finally, make the radical choice of love. Speaking at the Oxford Union in 2015, Dr. Angela Davis argued that love is the most extreme action that one can take for it cuts to the very root of things, pushing aside the myriad ways that this world has obscured the truth of our dignity and worth. Love is what allows us to recognize the image of God in each other. To be held in love, whether our own or that of another person, helps us remember that this divine reflection exists in us as well. Real talk: the legislation that has been proposed is not grounded in religious freedom, or family values, or children’s welfare. It finds its origin in hate. And has been said, so many times before, we meet hate, and bigotry, and fear with love. Not the “turn your cheek, hug your enemy, gather around the campfire” kind of love. But the kind of love proposed by Dr. Davis: an extreme love, a radical love, a love that protects and affirms and lifts up and honors and creates space for the other to radiate the inner light that is uniquely and impossibly theirs.
This is my blessing, for each one of you: that when you feel overwhelmed by a world that is not as it should be, when you feel pulled toward hopelessness and despair, that you make radical choices: to be moved by your anger, to cultivate space for abundant gratitude, and to love with boldness and wonder. My hope is that in those moments when we feel like Aaron, disconnected from the sacred inheritance that belongs to each and every one of us, we find ourselves surrounded by Moseses. And when we encounter someone who is a bit like Aaron, I ask that you be their Moses, beckoning them to step into their power.