This sermon was delivered at our June 21st, 2024 Pride Shabbat service. You can watch this drash on Mishkan’s YouTube channel or listen on Contact Chai podcast.

Shabbat shalom. 

My name is Aidan Gilbert. My pronouns are He/They, and my adjectives are funny and inappropriate.  

As an older bi man in a loving, monogamous relationship with a woman, I may seem like an unusual choice for speaking on Pride Shabbat. I was a little surprised myself. But if you squint your eyes and tilt your head just a little, I think you will see the wisdom of Rabbi Steven’s choice. 

I know what an unsettling time this is for the queer Jewish community. We stand in harsh spotlights, being threatened from all sides. Our detractors are doing their best to erase our history and ban our thoughts. They demonize the youngest and most at-risk amongst us. But I am here tonight to remind you that, despite all our detractors’ efforts, we have made huge strides. That is something we can take pride in!

42 years ago, when I came out as a bi kid in Central Illinois, queer was still a pejorative; the police still raided the gay bars; seemingly normal, caring parents cast their children out onto the street, and trans and bi-phobia were rampant both inside and outside the LGBTQ community. The 80s felt like everyone we loved was dying all around us — because they were. Open, public expressions of affection could get you beaten within an inch of your life.  

In 1990, Reform rabbis were tasked with voting on the question whether to ordain gays and lesbians as Rabbis or Cantors. My synagogue in Springfield, IL had a listening session to discern the thinking of the community. I sat across the table from people I knew and respected who threw around the terms “abomination” and “aveyrah”. These were people I had prayed with, laughed with, and mourned with. My heart was breaking. At least until an old man I had never seen before stood up, rolled up his shirt sleeve, and held his concentration camp tattoo for all to see. “I want you to see my credentials,” he said, “I lived in a time where I thought love was dead. I cannot and will not deny anyone who brings love into the world. I will learn with them, I will pray with them, I will dance at their weddings. I lived in a time when I thought love was dead. I lived in a time when I thought G!d was dead! We are tasked with keeping both alive.”  

No one spoke after him. After breaking up, I asked around to find out who the man was, and nobody had ever seen him before. That was the day I met the Prophet Elijah. I am happy to tell you, the reform rabbis voted in favor of LGBTQ ordinations.) 

For those lucky enough to live in a town large enough to support a gay bar, walking up to the gay bar door for the first time was an act of incredible bravery! Bravery which was, I hope, met with laughter, dancing, cheap draft beer, maybe a passionate kiss, but most importantly, the ability to exist, authentically, in a community where they were safe. Or as safe as a gay youth in the heartland can be. I remember my first foray to the bar — Smokey’s Den in Springfield. I walked past it three or four times — finding its windowless storefront uninviting. Once inside, it took only minutes before I knew these were my people. (And I slow-danced to the jukebox with a 6’2” drag queen.)

Today, gay marriage is legal from sea to shining sea. WE did that. We also secured civil rights protection for every member of the LGBTQ+ community in Illinois. Our bars now have windows where once they were blacked out to safeguard patrons’ privacy. We fought long and hard, sometimes resorting to the occasional thrown pump, but WE did it.  

What else did we do? We fought for and won the right to foster and adopt children, creating permanent, loving families. We fought for millions of dollars for HIV research, and now the scourge that killed so many people we loved is a manageable, preventable disease. We methodically built foundational support and formed alliances which turned LGBTQ+ leaders into political powerbrokers. Across the country, we elected out members of the community to the positions of Judge, Alderperson, State Representative, State Senator, and members of Congress and the US Senate. Don’t forget, a gay man ran for president! All of this is progress.

In giving a d’var, one is charged with finding some way to make the reading relevant. That is a tall order with this week’s parsha. This week’s Torah portion teaches us that G!d doesn’t like crybabies. And wandering in the desert with only manna to eat resulted in a fair amount of crybabying. To be perfectly honest, what we really learn is that the character G!d can be a bully. G!d may be omnipotent, but They weren’t patient or understanding. They were cruel. And vindictive. Oh! They were also an arsonist. G!d was so vexed They set fire to the encampment. There was a great deal of smiting. Then Miriam had a racist moment which G!d punished by inflicting Miriam with leprosy. It took Moses’ intercession with the omnipotent to secure for her a cure, but still, G!d acted rashly and cruelly.

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that only G!d is prone to sudden violent thought or action. We are quite capable of rash judgments and bullying of our fellow Jews — after all, we are made in G!d’s image — although I am glad to say that smiting has gone out of favor. It is worth the discomfort involved to seriously examine instances in our lives where we mocked or bullied other members of our communities.

Later in the parsha there is a detailed matrix for blowing the shofar to mobilize the tribes of Israel.

I want to focus on the detailed, tedious manual for blowing the shofar. Not because I’m a scholar of ancient forms of semaphore, but because G!d spelled out how they were to be used to communicate with and mobilize the Israelites.  

As a people, we have been beset by myriads of enemies, countless times in our history. The shofar codex provides a structure within which the Israelites were to communicate, consolidate forces, protect the people, and move them forward. 

We don’t have need for the shofar today — we have phones that do almost everything — but we still need to heed the call to mobilize. The same cabal that overturned Roe v Wade has now trained their soulless eyes in our direction, making the upcoming election cycle important for our survival. The election in November will literally be a matter of life or death for many LGBTQ+ folks. Our right to marry as we please, the legality of our families, the safety of trans and gender non-conforming youth — all of this is on the ballot this fall.  

Heed the call of the shofar. Mobilize. Protect the gains made by our predecessors — we stand on their shoulders. Register to vote, if you haven’t already. Then make a list of policy positions that are important to you: for me it would be choice, LGBTQ+ civil rights protection, affordable housing, peace in the Middle-East, and nutrition supports. You can make your own list. Once made, check the candidates’ positions against your list. And don’t give your vote to someone who would hurt you or your community.

In other communities, the Alt-Right, Christian Fundamentalists, and white nationalists have used school boards as a way to advance their culture wars agenda. I don’t think it is too early to start talking about next spring, when Chicago will elect its first Board of Education. We will need to be vigilant. Complacency is not an option.

If complacency is not an option, neither is invisibility. We won’t let fear drive us into the shadows. Nobody puts Baby in the corner. We have come too far.  

Baruch HaShem, and Shabbat shalom.