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Parshat Vayeishev (2013)


Genesis 37 – 40:21

Finding Friendship in the Company of Outcasts

Do you have a friend that always accepts you no matter what? Is that your idea of a good friend? What type of friends do you have in your life? Are they cronies or are they partners for greater things? Today we are going to explore some friendships born under pressure, and explore what makes them most intimate.

Though most of this parsha seem to concern itself with the uppity Yosef haTzadik, I actually found myself drawn in to the story of our anti-hero Yehuda. We don’t often give enough look at him, first because he is a villain of sorts up until now. Secondly, his story is sandwiched in the middle of our parsha, so it feels like just a minor stop-off. However, we have a lot to learn here in Genesis chapter 38.

Let us take a look at the top of our fourth aliya:

“And in time its happened that

Judah was demoted in the eyes

of his brothers,

so he turned to certain Adullamite

whose name was Hirah.”

| Vayehi ba’et hahi

| vayered Yehuda

| me’et echav

| bvayet ad-ish Adulami

| ushmo Chirah.

Genesis 38:1

Previously we learned that Yehuda was chiefly responsible for his brother’s kidnapping and the consequential selling of him into slavery.  For his role as antagonist in this case, rightfully his brothers demote him. The word use is vayered, they made him decrease or go down. His yeridah (descent) was not just metaphorical, it was also physical as he ran away from his blessed home and went to stay out in the wilderness with a friend he made from Adullam, in the Valley of Elah.

Male Friends Embracing

This week we discuss friendships. Why don’t we talk enough about the need of men to have male-friendships?

I use the word “friend” because this is the type of word that is used in the scriptures to describe the relationship that there was between Yehuda and Chirah. Not just once does it use this word, but twice in this chapter we hear of Chirah as Yehuda’s, “ray’ayhu / his friend.” (see Genesis 38:12, 20) The text also seems to suggest they might be business partners, as the first mention of friendship also states that they went up to sheer their sheep together as if this is their shared trade.

Now what type of friend is this that Yehuda has in him? I once heard the crass phrase: “Friends help you move. But real friends help you move bodies.” This here friendship of course was not that bad, but it was pretty close to being partners in crime. They were close friends that depended on each other and that held each other’s secrets. A friendship that in a time of need one can depend on the other for help in getting out of their mess. In each other they had a friend that wouldn’t turn away out of judgement or disgust.

Now this type of friendship is rare. In fact we don’t often hear of this type of interdependency in our tradition. Of this type of re’ah (רֵעַ), of this type of friend. One of the few places that we hear of this type of relationship is during the Sheva Brachot of the marriage ceremony. We pray that a couple should find in each other, “ahavah v’achavah, v’shalom v’rayut / love and fraternity, peace and friendship.”

Finding a good friend can often be just as hard as finding a good spouse. Finding someone in whom you can trust and even expose your most intimate things to is not at all easy.

What Yehuda needed in a friend was someone who would not just understand him as much as his wife did, but someone who was trustworthy enough to help him defuse a secret that one would normally keep from  their wife!

In quick summary, Yehuda had a childless widow of a daughter-in-law who desperately wanted a child. According to the custom it was her right to have a male brother of the husband’s clan help her conceive, in order to enable her to keep her status and land holdings through an heir. Because one of Yehuda’s sons did wrong by her and subsequently died on account of it, he refuses to let another of his immature boys get involved and thus she is left in a state of hopelessness.

However, we read here in this chapter that one day Yehuda came across this woman, Tamer his daughter-in-law. Her girlfriends had told her that he was coming into town, so she sought him out to again make her case. One night she was waiting on the side of the road for him as he was coming back from partying. We can only assume in a drunken stupor. Dressed in a veil, Yehuda mistakes Tamar for a prostitute. In desperation she goes along with it, and she does in fact conceive by this act.

The crux of the story is that Tamar is given a signet ring, a tassel and his staff as a guarantee for her payment of a goat that he is promising her. Though she takes these items knowing they will be needed to prove the paternity of the child she hopes to conceive.

When Yehuda comes to, of course he needs to follow through on his promise. And better yet he needs to claim his cherished items that can identify him as a player. So he sends his most intimate friend, Chirah the Adulami with his ransom.

In the end we read that eventually Yehuda learns about Tamar’s pregnancy in a complicated and dramatic plot twist. And he does claim the twin sons as his own, clearing her of any wrong doing and even praising her. He was the one that had twice acting unbecoming; first by his refusing his adult son to her for her redemption as a lady, and secondly by using her as an outlet for his very typical, macho sexual appetite.

It is true that on the surface we don’t see Yehuda repent of his sexual act. We are almost forced to accepted that men are cheaters, and that polyamory is the norm in that age. What he did was shameful, but according to their societal norms it wasn’t that wrong for a man. Though it is also true that the act he performed as an evil-impulse ended up manifesting as a chesed (a kindness) anyhow. Still this story does not put Yehuda in the greatest light. It’s not something to be proud of, rather something one would normally prefer to keep private.

So private is his wrong, this silly act of giving a his most important belongings away, that only his best friend can be trusted to help him clean up the mess. He sends his friend Churah the Adulami, to help him keep his word. In this friend he found someone who was not just a casual friend, but someone who was intimate enough to know the privy happenings. All the sexual secrets, the financial indiscretions, and the personal failures.

We might want to mark this man Chirah as an enabler. Or even as a lousy friend, considering we all know that friends are to set each other straight. They are the people who should be most bold and stern with us about our ways. Instead it looks like he is helping him out and trying to get him out of trouble. But really Chirah is helping him do right by this woman. Our sages will call him a tzadik for this, they see him as a righteous man.

The other reason we need to value the mention of Chirah is because he deserves the credit of being friend to the broken Yehuda after he hit rock bottom. Here Yehuda is holding guilt on his conscience, and the weight of the blame for the brothers that conspired with him. He is running out in the boarder regions, with no one else in the world willing to have him. Then Chirah not just took him in, but also became a friend that accepted him with no judgments. If anything his interest was to mitigate the situations of Yehuda’s folly.

The place that Yehuda was in both mentally and physically was very rough. He was in no place to be left alone. He was there because he was an outcast. In fact, the scriptures seem to suggest that is exactly the reason he was there. Yehuda is not the only person in the scriptures to be run away to Adullam. We know of one other great but lusty man who was exiled and hid there, it was Kind David himself.

In the book of Samuel we read of David’s escape from the pursuing King Saul, he was on the ruin in fear of his life. The scriptures tell us precisely that he “vayimaleit / he escaped;” he fled to the cave of Adullam, he was running for his life. (see 1 Samuel 22:1)

Now what do we know of this place and why people go there, other than it is remote and so obscure of a place that some people dwell in its caves? The scriptures tell us this about the locals that were willing to gather there, and about the people who were willing to venture to this rough side of the tracks:

“And every one that was in distress, and every one that was in debt, and every one that was discontented, gathered themselves unto him [David]; and he became captain over them; and there were with him about four hundred men.”

וַיִּתְקַבְּצוּ אֵלָיו כָּלאִישׁ מָצוֹק וְכָלאִישׁ אֲשֶׁרלוֹ נֹשֶׁא, וְכָלאִישׁ מַרנֶפֶשׁ, וַיְהִי עֲלֵיהֶם, לְשָׂר; וַיִּהְיוּ עִמּוֹ, כְּאַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת אִישׁ.

1 Samuel 22:2

Here we see that the place where Yehuda had previously gone to hide during his exile, David had to go there during his time of exile and trouble as well. This is skidrow, this is rock-bottom, that is what Adullam represents.

Though there are some differences between Yehuda’s situation and that of David. Yehuda was there merely to hide out, and it just so happened that while he was there he met a friend that helped him out and helped set him back on his feet. Yehuda had to be developed, and as strange as it seems this was where and how Hashem put someone in his path to accomplish that. A friend that kept him busy with companionship and enterprise, instead personal misery.

However, in David’s situation it was a little bit different. You see David was there with a purpose. He was there as part of a political and social revolution. He was feared by the king so he was on the run. Though while hiding out in the hood he made connections with all the people who were also in distress and helped make their cause his own. He partnered with the other people who were in distress and dire straights. The people who were crushed under the burden of debt, the people who were tired of the bitterness (mar-nefesh) in their society. He organized them into a band of brothers to fight for his noble cause, today we recognize that as a seminal part of our Jewish history.

Now through this we learn something interesting about friendships in general. The Rambam tells us that there is more to friendship than just having good friends or bad friends. He contends there are more levels to judge how deeply your friendship goes, and it’s more than just the distinction between personal friendship and professional camaraderie in his mind. The commentary of the Rambam for Avot tells us this:

“….as the men of mussar say, ‘Do not establish friendship according to your nature; establish friendship according to your friend’s nature.’

When each of the friends conducts himself according to this directive, then the desire of each one will be to fulfill the will of his colleague. Thus, they will both share a common goal. How appropriate is the statement of Aristotle, ‘A friend is another self’ (Ethics 9:4).

There are three types of friendship: friendship of function, friendship of pleasure, and friendship for the sake of a higher purpose. Examples of friendships of function include a business partnership, or the relationship between a general and his army.

There are two types of friendships of pleasure: friendship of enjoyment and friendship of security. An example of a friend of enjoyment is the relationship between men and women in marriage, and the like. A friendship of security is when a person has a friend on whom he can rely without withholding anything from him, neither deed nor word. He reveals to him all his matters – both good and bad – without worrying that he will shame him – either in private or in public. When a person is able to trust a friend to this extent, he will derive tremendous satisfaction from his conversation and his company.

A friendship for the sake of a higher purpose refers to a situation where both individuals desire and focus on a single objective: the Good. Each will desire to be assisted by his colleague to attain the good for them both. This is the type of friend [the mishnah] commanded us to acquire – for example, the relationship between a rav [rabbi, teacher] and his student, and between a student and his rav.”

Rambam (1135 – 1204 C.E.), Commentary on Avot 1:6

I think these words hold many truths for how we should select friendships, and how on many different levels we can develop that relationship. Our sages lead us to a very interesting perspective as to what we should define as a “quality friend.”

Discussion: One of the things that I feel is very much left out of the discussions these days is the topic of intimate male companionship and friendships. The deepness of relationships that men can have with each other.

In this day and age we thankfully have many lectures about women’s relationships. For instance, we are more than comfortably to talk about the friendship between Ruth and Naomi. Discussion groups in progressive shuls are more than willing to talk about “The Red Tent,” and jump into fantasy about women united through menses and bosoms. But you can’t seem to have a talk in the common culture anymore about friendships between men in the bible without it being branded as “gay.”

We are so uncomfortable about male intimacy and friendship, that people just rather assume the notable male relationships must be homosexual in nature. To me that not only sounds insecure and small-minded, but oddly homophobic to latently suggests something is queer about having close friends of the same-sex. We joke of these friendships as “bromances.”

Is it not possible for men to also have the same type of close emotional and biological ties we know exist for women? That males can also have good, quality, platonic, yet intimate friendships as well?

If anything, what we have learned today has taught us that are times we can indeed have platonic, same-sex friendships that are just as wild as those girls on “Sex and the City.” And yes, at times the love of a friend and the stimulation it sparks in us does seem to rate higher than even our marriage relationship might in certain areas. It’s just a different form of friendship, in a different context. But it is a very natural thing, and shouldn’t need to treated like a deviance.

How do you think the Jewish community should better engage the topic of the beauty of male friendships?

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Orthodoxy: Exciting times, trying times…


Orthodoxy: Exciting times, trying times…
Dropouts, gay rights, scandals; what say you?

Friday, May 18th, 2012

I don’t touch on many social issues usually. I have tried to keep this blog to learning “Torah lishma” – learning Torah for its own sake, and not politicizing things. But recently a lot of people have asked how I feel about certain happenings in the Jewish community. A lot of social turmoil has rocked the Jewish world, so my friends from NY (shouts out to all of you in Crown Heights!) put together some questions they would like for me to answer on the record for the first time. I know a bit about this stuff. I think its time, so I agreed. Unfortunately I can’t really expect most of these people to go on record as they are mostly heterosexuals who are orthodox, who just can’t afford the backlash. But I do owe people some answers for being so open towards me. So we will do it this way…

It’s an exciting time, lots of things going on in the news. The times, they’re a changin’. Any thoughts?

It really is an exciting time. The past week with Biden and them Obama coming out in support of gay marriage,which is a big deal. This has gotten a lot of people worked up in the Jewish community, for and against. But its all for good, people are talking about what matters to them and about tolerance. But this has just spiced up a certain atmosphere that seems to have been going on since the year started with Rosh haShanah.

How is that? Do you mean that its been a productive time for gay rights?

Well yes, but not just that. It’s interesting to see how certain things going on in the culture have brought out people from the hiding. Obama and Biden seem to have inspired Yitz Jordan (Y-Love). Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” inspired Chaim Levin with “Gotta Give ‘Em Hope.” The the sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the orthodox world have propelled interest in the input of people like Deborah Feldman. But we gotta remember we started this year off with Matisyahu stepping out of the frum box people set him in too. See we have a lot going on, it’s not all about gays. But if we look at what all these people have in common, they all have had to bear deep pain and backlash for choosing to pursue personal autonomy. I can certainly sympathize, because I was there about 7 years ago. I don’t always agree with these people, but I try to have very few judgments because the experience they are having is really hard. Let alone in the spotlight and with so much criticism. A lot of orthodox people are upset because it can seem to put Jews in a bad light when they talk about their experience, but forget just how raw their sentiments are because of how personal it is. People often come out spastic and hysterical in their struggle because that was how their experience was. It’s not easy to communicate sometimes, let alone with the distraction of other people and their intentions for why they are giving you a voice.

You don’t often talk about the whole experience of being orthodox and gay. But you don’t mind people knowing your gay, and you talk all day about orthodox Judaism; but rarely the two cross. Why is that?

I’m glad your spelling that with a small “o.” I lived in an orthodox community for many years, I still associate with the orthodox world in that I study Torah with frum Jews. Almost all my work, from teaching Torah to working on siddurim (prayerbooks), it is primarily utilized by frum people. But I am not frum. I haven’t lived in that community for almost 7 years now. I don’t avoid the subject, but I’ve been openly gay in the context of orthodox Jews for almost 20 years. One thing has served me well is to not to make it all about me in the public sphere. One doesn’t talk about heterosexuals when it comes to their sex life; its not tznius – modest; it shouldn’t be any different for me. When other people don’t remember that, I remind them and it ends there. But it’s like being part of a family. You have the people everyone loves, and then there are the difficult people; us Jews aren’t any different. But I hold a deep love for orthodox Judaism. The Orthodox world has never harmed me, I will never do anything to harm them. Most of the time the feelings go both ways when the boot hits the ground in daily Jewish life.

Then where do you fit in? What is your connection to orthodoxy?

Unlike most people who have disastrous stories about being excommunicated after coming out, mine was exactly the opposite. I wasn’t raised religious, was from a mixed marriage, broken family; very disconnected from Judaism all together. I had interest, learned to read Hebrew and basic stuff early as a kid, but didn’t become religious until I was a teenager. I was forced to leave home at 15. Always associated with my Jewish friends more than anyone else, we did holidays at their different shuls together. Shmueli and MatisyahuOne Yom Kippur the Conservative rabbi leading started bashing the Orthodox while preaching, chastising people for associating and given charity to them. Naturally as a rebellious and curious kid I wanted to know what threatened him so much, the next week I found myself in an orthodox synagogue. Seven months later I was living in a Chabad community. Didn’t have any intention on becoming that religious necessarily, but I couldn’t avoid it. Jewish people move to Jewish neighborhoods where you can pick a synagogue, close enough to walk to. My first time at the supermarket when I lived on my own, people were literally stumbling over each other to invite me and my partner to have Shabbos dinner by them. They came after me, and I kept coming back. And weeks turned into months, months turned into years, then a decade.

So people knew about your sexuality and were still welcoming to you, or was it just being civil?

Like I said, it was never talked about. But people knew. My partner and I were attached at the hip, like one entity most of the time. We used to go to shul together… correction, it was that way at first. Eventually we got to know people, and given that my partner wasn’t as rowdy as me and the guys around my age; I would go to shul with the men and he would help the women get ready for Shabbat or holidays, talking over Martha Stewart recipes. But as much as some people looked on curiously at first, I never heard anything about it. Actually so little about it that I wasn’t even aware for years that we were notorious throughout the LA area Orthodox communities as merely “the interesting ones.” You cannot spend years with people, in their homes, with their families, enjoying their lifecycle events and not get to see them for real. The leaders of the community, not just the peripheral people were more caring and giving to me than my own blood relatives; a fact anyone in my life will not deny. But I think a lot of people really were accepting, treating me like they did anyone else; I was doing the best I could with what I had to deal with, like a lot of other people and that was respected and encouraged. Judaism isn’t all or nothing. But certainly some people had to learn to be civil with me, because mistreating me wouldn’t be tolerated when there wasn’t anything substantial to disavow me for through my actions.

How did you know people were just being civil sometimes? What does that look like?

When Jews don’t like you, they just don’t talk to you. Really. Like if a person argues with you, its just because they are trying to make the conversation interesting; often times their opinion be damned, if they can provoke a discussion to get to know how you think about something. Silence is not golden, necessarily. But that is what I learned about Jewish civility, you keep you mouth shut and act like a mensch. But often times people in the community were used to having me at their side, it was just known that I was part of the extended family and we all found a way to make the different personalities work.

Were people ever outright accepting? If so, what did that look like?

Quick, but very telling example. One time I was at a wedding. A close friend of mine was getting married, the guy was a young rabbi, came from a family of tzaddikim – righteous people – that was like my adopted family. At one point during the meal someone had mentioned a person who was a former member of the community, who had dropped out of the community after he came out of the closet. I mentioned just in passing that I had met this person once before and someone overheard me mention this person’s name through the noise, not knowing the context I was railed before I got more than a name out and got a finger in my face, “Don’t you dare say a dirty word, you’re talking about a real mensch!” And that was one of many instances that made me realize there were a lot of people out there more than just tolerating, but truly accepting people.

Sometimes in the orthodox world the connection goes a little bit deeper, it’s not easy, it’s a bit isolating for some, for others overwhelming as you live in a fishbowl like existence all living so close as neighbors. But most of all your main priority is doing mitzvot – good deeds. Whereas I saw a lot of beautiful liberal synagogues out there, I always felt that in those circles title, station in life, status and ethnicity mattered more. I never really had much usefulness in those circles, because I was very unique and did not fit their roles well. But in a strong faith-based system I had a lot of opportunity to show what I could do, not just how much money I could give or what IPO I could recommend. But I can honestly say I was never excluded from appropriate community functions, in fact I was encouraged to be more involved and write more for the community than I already was doing. That’s how my work carried on to the siddur projects and now blogging Hardcore Mesorah.

What did you find most impressive about the orthodox communities?

The families. Really. Unless you come from outside of the traditional Jewish world you might not have a whole lot of appreciation for how intensely involved the traditional Jewish family experience is. We all joke about the Jewish mothers, and yentas. It’s not all weird and neurotic. Living in a community you have these big families with all these days of free time spent together. And yes families all have their issues, but I was so surprised by how intense the sense of love and connectivity there was in these families. By the time I got to college and they asked me to write a paper about my holiday, I wrote about spending it with a family in my community and chuckled when my professor said, “This is wonderful, but I said a true essay; I can’t believe people this nice really exist!” It’s had an effect on me. So leaving it was so bad. I think I dated an ex-Mormons for the first couple years after I became single again and left the community! They were the only ones that tolerated the way I still occasionally dressed and my need to constantly be preparing huge meals for huge families…. well, before I got over my guilt and started dating Jews again. Few families know what its like to have such deep interdependence and spend much time together these days.

So what made you leave the orthodox world?

Honestly, I dropped out at the kicking and screaming of people you would least expect to encourage the local faygeleh come back to shul more often. I wasn’t very good about relationships, I was all mixed up over my sexuality and quite frankly wasn’t a good partner. When the relationship ended I was very depressed, depression led to sickness, then I started drinking and it went downhill from there. But I like most people began tapering off my attendance, over guilt because I had stopped dressing chassidic, and wasn’t coming as often. Then the president of the shul, and a very influential man all around at that, cornered me in the shul one day as I was leaving and asked what was going on with me. I confessed I was embarrassed because I was so religious before and now I was just kind of a slacker and I didn’t want to make people talk. You know what? He got so upset with me and ranted that I never cared what anyone else thought before, but I came anyways, why did it matter now? If I backed off I let people win; even worse, I was letting myself lose what I needed and it hurt people to watch me hurt that way. I was there for myself and Hashem, everything else was irrelevant. He was right but in the end my guilt won out. I eventually moved to start anew, but found myself living too far outside of the frum communities to be an active part. I guess thats why online contributions are such a big deal to me, its something that started in a community and now actually provides some for me.

Oh so you do date,  you mentioned dating earlier. Do you date only Jewish guys?

I haven’t dated in many years. It’s just not a priority in my life at this time. I’m not against it, but lets admit its, it can be very difficult and confusing. I’ve had very close but platonic relationships with non-Jewish guys, but I’ve showed reluctance to much more. It’s hard to ask someone to make so many one-sided compromises; kashrut, Shabbat. And to constantly explain oneself. One doesn’t always want to be a curator in their own life.

Now dating Jewish guys isn’t always easier, in fact it can actually be much harder. The trade-off is that often times Jews can be more turned off by Judaism than non-Jews. The experience of dissatisfaction or pain is so personal. And the more religious the person’s background, the harder it can be sometimes, again from internalizing it. Many of us who come out of a more religious life tend to come with a lot of hangups. We tend to demand a lot of our yiddishkiet, and often turn our noses up at more progressive Judaism. But at the same time our person-hood requires us to be more flexible with others if we expect them to be likewise. The problem is that we can feel like Frankenstein-like creatures; lots of pieces of the old world, held together by bits and pieces of modern tolerance, and a bunch of scars to show for how hard it is to put the two together. A lot more are just left permanently broken.

What’s the tension. Why not embrace liberal Judaism?

When the holidays come around it can be a lot depressing if you’re on your own and without a community. But going to a liberal synagogue on holidays can be odd. People joke even if they knew it was a holiday they probably couldn’t even spell it anyhow; people aren’t exactly being unfair in their estimation there. But I’ve tried. I love the local Reform congregation, the people are great but I can’t get beyond the organ. I get nervous because I’m not used to being in a synagogue and not know whats going on or whats happening next. I’m not the only one, I know literally thousands of people who feel the same. Sometimes Progressive Judaism, to those who are used to living in a frum world, seems very childish and condescending to the point of camp songs. You rather have farbreingin – a Chassidic party with the Crown Royal, not sitting around singing “mama’s little baby loves latkes.” I’m not sure that ever is gonna change for me, who knows.

But I am actually a member of the Reconstructionist movement officially. Some might see that as very liberal. However, after much consideration and consultation with rabbis of all the movements one person that stood out to me through their commentary was Rabbi Mordechi Kaplan. He was a person that was influential as a man who was ordained Orthodox, taught for the Conservative seminaries and even founded one of them, spawned things like Young Israel (Orthodox movement) and the Jewish Federation movement, he was all over the map in his life. A person often associated with great liberalism, but in his personal life still maintained an attitude and respect of tradition, while allowing innovation for others as they needed it. He didn’t mean to start a movement, his student just felt it was necessary in order to preserve his teachings. A wise rabbi, Rabbi Arnold Rachlis of University Synagogue in Irvine, who is one of the finest Reconstructionist leaders, gave me some good advice that I was able to live by: “live kosher, think treif.” It’s easier to join in with a progressive community that doesn’t freak out because I’m a bit more traditional in my practice. But daily, I still use only a Chabad siddur.

So do you ever see yourself going full on Baal Teshuvah? Do you see yourself going orthodox again?

You mean is there still life in the Borsalino? Sureeeee. I’ll tell the truth. Life has been difficult for me in recent years because I’ve been in the care of my family after being ill for so long. But I really only know one way of living. My first home on my own was a kosher and shomer shabbat home, that’s what I know and ideally that’s what I want in life. Its hard to impose so much all the time while with family, and I get a lot of leeway given I have physical disability; suffering a long time through HIV/AIDS has meant halachically I have a lot of space to work with; Jewish law is veryhatborsalinoshmu receptive of personal limitation and needs. But as I get stronger and start rebuilding myself I, like all people with a second chance at life, want to stop living on the handicap and start doing things with all the normalcy and dignity one is accustomed. Modern medicine is making that much more possible now, but its taking time.

But I have always believed in ahavat yisrael and klal yisrael; love for and unity of the Jewish people. I’m a bit more pluralistic these days, but I dare say that anyone who allows me to learn and daven with them; I promised to be there on my best behavior. I’ve never been a person with any agenda. I just want to learn, do some good deeds and give a little charity. I’ll partner with any shul or community that has room for someone like that.

Ideally I would like is to make aliyah to Israel, to really tackle the deeper academics of the Hebrew language and learn in a more natural setting than suburban Los Angeles. Of course not having any family there and the complexity of trying to keep uninterrupted treatment while settling in will take tremendous work to overcome. But in Israel people often find it much easier to experiment with their range of Jewish expression without having to make too many theological leaps. People tend to do or do not, without coming up with a Jedi philosophy as to why not to try. The other benefit is being able to purchase affordable health care in Israel, which just isn’t possible yet in this country. Let’s see what happens.

You don’t ever like to give any type of interview without being able to share a davar torah – a message from the Torah. Do have anything to share today?

Sure. Absolutely, we are coming upon Shabbat quickly. Shabbat has already started in Israel. They are reading from Parshat Bamidbar, the start of the book of Numbers. The entire book is often summarized and nicknamed by the census that takes place at the beginning of it. Each man of full-grown age was to give a half-shekel donation. What we all ask ourselves is “what is a half-shekel?” Well the truth is the half-shekel was the common man’s coin. On their own maybe a donation of one wasn’t much, but when pooled together they were able to support the entire enterprise of sacrifice and communal needs. We are just a half, we need to partner with others to be useful sometimes.

It can be hard to do that, sure. Sometimes we just want to be the whole on our own. But we are Jews, we are about the covenant of G-d to Abraham. And that covenant was made between the halves. G-d and Abraham met and made a vow between the halves of their sacrifice. (Parshat Lech Lecha) Many of us are walking between those halves still, lingering. It’s okay, sometimes that’s where a promise and a blessing will be found. G-d is willing to meet us if we do our part and meet Him in return.


Parshat Shelach – The Gay Pride Parsha (parody)


Parshat Shelach – The Gay Pride Parsha (parody)
What if Shmu was Rav for the day?

Every few days for weeks now I’ve been getting emails like this:

“Reb Shmu, gay pride season is once again upon us! How are we supposed to tackle this issue? Is this becoming for religious people? Is it permissible to be part of it? What do you think?”

Well my friends, you know I tend to think that everything relates back to the weeks parsha somehow, that’s part of my spooky schtick so work with me here. And it doesn’t hurt that most of the time Tel Aviv pride coincides with this weeks parsha, Parshat Shelach, so lets see if we can find some connection.

In this parsha we see that 12 spies were sent into the Promised Land to scout it out. One of the things that the spies did was take a sample of the fruit of the land in order to present it to the people as evidence.

The text tells us that this fruit was not ordinary:

“And they came even unto the

valley of Eshkol

and there they cut a branch

of a single cluster of grapes

and carried it on a pole between two

and they also took of the pomegranates

and of the figs.”

| “Va’yavo’u ad

| nachal Eshkol,

| vayichretu misham zimorah

| veshkol anavim echad,

| vayisa’ohu vamot bishnai’im;

| umin harimonim

| umin-hatainim”

Numbers 13:23

We are talking about some big fruits here! Rashi tells us that what it means by grapes being carried between two on poles is that poles were passed between men, resting on their shoulders. The cluster of grapes was hung between them, row after row, 8 men in total holding a single branch of grapes. One man took a pomegranate and another a fig, because they were so big they couldn’t carry more than one. The fruit was then paraded before the people. Ten people took fruit, two did not; the two that did not were Yehoshua (Joshua) and Kelev (Caleb). Rashi says:

“Yehoshua and Kelev did not take anything

considering all others took with a specific

plan to slander.

[Saying] just as the fruit is unusual

so are the people.”

יהושע וכלב לא נטלו כלום, |

לפי שכל עצמם להוציא |

דבה נתכוונו, |

כשם שפריה משונה כך |

עמה משונה. |

Rashi to Numbers 13:23

And thus the story goes down hill, all these wild rumors start to abound concerning giants that they couldn’t possibly beat, all because of some big fruit. But Yehoshuah and Kelev, they didn’t want to have any part of it. They just went along for the ride, already convinced that they were gonna take the land. These two didn’t engage in or give spotlight to theatrics that could be misunderstood.

What can I give you to take away from this lesson? I’m not exactly sure, but it’s a pretty good suggestion in my mind to take a look at yourself. Are you a big fruit? It’s not for me to judge, but you know who you are my friend! If so it’s a pretty good suggestion from me for you to stay out of marching in the parade itself. Now, if your just a regular sized fruit – a regular, everyday, run of the mill, ordinary queer – I see no prohibition as your outrageousness does not defame the land! But if you want to be machmir (stringent), I recommend if you’re on a float you abstain from hanging from go-go poles, which is most often the minhag (custom) in Tel Aviv.

On a serious note, many religious Jewish sites stateside have been talking about need and necessity of gay people to celebrate the gay pride festival. I don’t want to give respect to the argument that gay people are less than, nor discuss the nature of same gender love. The need to respect gay people and their relationships is self-evident to anyone who opens their heart. But I do have this to say, all of us who support the state of Israel should be proud that gay people are able to celebrate their individuality in any legal fashion they desire. In this respect Israel stands as a shining beacon, an example of tolerance in the world where so often gays are summarily executed by state and citizens alike. In the middle-east where people take to the street for reasons of hate and violence everyday, we should feel proud every time in Israel people take to the streets for any reason of self-expression and any form of a chesed (kindness, goodwill)! This last speech by PM Netenyahu to the United States congress he pointed out the moral enlightenment of Israel for our tolerance of gay people. We take credit for being a free society, we need to respect other people in accordance with that spirit of freedom and not criticize. We can’t have it both ways.

Happy Pride and Shabbat Shalom,
Shmu


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