Friday, August 7, 2015

Not Because of Your Righteousness/Blessed Above the Nations: Parashat Eikev

     When do I feel most Zionist?  Usually at a gay pride parade in Israel.  I have been to several marches and parades in the Jewish State over years that I lived in there, and the many times I have visited.  It is at these events that I can be completely myself -- full, complete, joyous, and at peace.  I can affirm simultaneously 1) the beauty and grandeur of a country that provided the richest soil for the blooming of vibrant Hebrew culture and a refuge for the millions of Jews who were exiled from nations around the world and 2) my identity as a gay, feminist person.  In progressive circles in the West, you are often labeled a "bad Jew" if you defend and celebrate the existence of a refuge and homeland for your people, and its right to defend itself.  In too many Jewish and Israeli contexts, the needs and identities of queer folks are ignored or rendered of secondary importance to other "broader" concerns, like security and "unity". But for a few weeks or months a year, as gay pride flags adorn the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, I still smile and feel deep satisfaction as I walk by the way, as I lie down, and as I rise up in my homeland.

Scene from my first Jerusalem gay pride march - Summer 2006

But then --  for the second time in a decade, a man attacks and ultimately kills another human being at the Jerusalem March for Pride and Tolerance in the name of righteousness and devotion to God.  He eroded the safety and sense of home queer folks feel in Israel.  And then, a few days later, Jewish terrorists burned a Palestinian baby alive in the name of righteousness and a devotion to God.  Whatever precarious safety that community felt before the attack, to fall asleep in and wake up alive, was gone.  I will never cease to be amazed and horrified by the damage, violence, and bloodshed that is done in the name of righteousness and devotion to God, the Source of All Life.

This week's Torah portion reminds us of the limits of our own righteousness and what it entitles us. In parashat Eikev, found in the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses reminds the Israelites:
19:6You shall know that, not because of your righteousness, the Lord, your God, gives you this land to possess it; for you are a stiffnecked people.ווְיָדַעְתָּ כִּי לֹא בְצִדְקָתְךָ יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַטּוֹבָה הַזֹּאת לְרִשְׁתָּהּ כִּי עַם קְשֵׁה עֹרֶף אָתָּה:
19: 7Remember do not forget, how you angered the Lord, your God, in the desert; from the day that you went out of the land of Egypt, until you came to this place, you have been rebelling against the Lord.זזְכֹר אַל תִּשְׁכַּח אֵת אֲשֶׁר הִקְצַפְתָּ אֶת יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בַּמִּדְבָּר לְמִן הַיּוֹם אֲשֶׁר יָצָאתָ | מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם עַד בֹּאֲכֶם עַד הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה מַמְרִים הֱיִיתֶם עִם יְהֹוָה:

We did not inherit the land, nor do we possess it today, because of our righteousness.  We hold onto this refuge and citadel by the grace of God.  We can lose Eretz Yisrael if we are consumed by baseless hatred and seduced by idolatry, but our holdings are not related to our merit. We can lose this land if we kill, covet, hate, ignore the sovereignty of God, and oppress God's special wards -- the stranger, the orphan, and the widow.  We find in this week's portion the most repeated mitzvah in the Torah:

Deuteronomy 10:19 You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
 יטוַ-אֲהַבְתֶּם אֶת הַגֵּר כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם:

Rashi derives additional meaning from this core mitzvah:  [You shall love the stranger] for you were strangers: Do not reproach others with your own defect. — [B. M. 59b] כי גרים הייתם: מום שבך אל תאמר לחברך:

According to Rashi, while it is always wrong to oppress the defenseless individual in your midst, it is even more repugnant for those who have experienced vulnerability and homelessness to do it to others.  The Torah refuses to let us to forget -- you were a people hewn in the desert, homeless and helpless.  The crucibles of slavery and wandering impart upon the Jewish people a special responsibility to care for the stranger, and never use our newfound power to oppress, frighten, or murder.  Not in the name of righteousness, not in the name of Divine right, and certainly not out of love for God.

Parashat Eikev makes very clear to us that the Israelites' gifts are not the result of unique righteousness or perfection.  Moses reminds us of our past sins and the ones he knows we will commit in the future.  At the same time, this portion affirms the special covenant and love that God has for us despite our shortcomings. It teaches us that we can trust in God and hold hope for the future if we obey the Law and fulfill our mission to be a light until the nations:

7:14You shall be blessed above all peoples: There will be no sterile male or barren female among you or among your livestock.ידבָּרוּךְ תִּהְיֶה מִכָּל הָעַמִּים לֹא יִהְיֶה בְךָ עָקָר וַעֲקָרָה וּבִבְהֶמְתֶּךָ:

7:17 You will say to yourself, "These nations are more numerous than I; how will I be able to inherit them"?יזכִּי תֹאמַר בִּלְבָבְךָ רַבִּים הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה מִמֶּנִּי אֵיכָה אוּכַל לְהוֹרִישָׁם:
7:18You shall not fear them. You shall surely remember what the Lord, your God, did to Pharaoh and to all of Egypt:יחלֹא תִירָא מֵהֶם זָכֹר תִּזְכֹּר אֵת אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְפַרְעֹה וּלְכָל מִצְרָיִם:

With my chavruta, Sara,
Jerusalem Pride 2006
Our sins do not abrogate our covenant with God, or the Divine's love for the people Israel.  Same too with my connection to and love for the State of Israel.  The nation has its ups and downs, its points of light and its pools of darkness -- like any other diverse and free people.  This week's portion not only humbles us and reminds us of our weighty obligations, but also reminds us of our potential, of God's love for the people Israel, of the Divine's power to redeem us from our own errors, and of the value of committed relationships that can withstand transgressions.  I will not abandon my people during their time of need or when they struggle to confront hatred and evil in their midst.  Rather, I rededicate myself to my inheritance and to my people in love and hope, even when it is most challenging.  Just as God did not abandon our relationship in our darkest hour, I will not abandon my family during theirs.  My brothers and sisters in Israel have fashioned a home, refuge, and citadel for me where I can feel fully human and whole.  I will fight to keep that Israel alive, safe, and sustaining.

Shabbat Shalom.