Meet Betzalel, the Builder

Image: The hands of a carpenter, measuring and marking a piece of wood. (wohnblogat/pixabay)

Jewish tradition has a long history of respect for scholarship. We value education as avidly as any people on earth. We honor not only Torah scholarship, but other disciplines for people who work with their minds rather than their bodies: law, medicine, academia, etc.

The larger society also has its priorities. Judging by how we compensate them, it’s fair to say that secular society most values sports stars, entertainers, and the occupants of  corporate suites.

Between these two realities, sometimes we tend to see those who work with their hands as lesser. We honor them less.  We value their work less. Torah teaches us that this is a serious error.

I recently was studying Parashat Ki Tavo, and reacquainted myself with Betzalel, the builder of the Tabernacle and the Ark.

The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying, “See, I have called by name Betzalel, son of Uri, son of Hur, of the Tribe of Judah. I have filled him with ruach Adonai, a divine spirit of wisdom, understanding, and knowledge in every craft, to devise works of skill to work in gold, in silver, and in brass, and in cutting stones for setting, and in carving of wood, and work in all manner of crafts. Moreover, I have assigned to him Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan; and I have also granted skill to all who are skillful, that they may make everything that I have commanded you: the Tent of Meeting, the Ark of the Covenant, and the cover upon it, and all the furnishings of the Tent. – Exodus 31: 1-7

Betzalel and Moses offer two contrasting ways of understanding Torah.

Moses is educated by God on Mount Sinai; he carries his diploma (the tablets) down the mountain. Betzalel does not have Moses’ education; rather, he intuits the design of the Mishkan and its furnishings, even though he was not on Mount Sinai.  The Talmud points out that God told Moses to build in a particular order: the Tent, the Ark, then its furnishings. (Exodus 31:7-11) Moses passes the command to Betzalel, but mixes it up, “Ark, furnishings, Tent.” (Exodus 25-26) Betzalel gently corrects him, saying, “Was it Tent, Ark, then furnishings?” (Exodus 36) And Moses exclaims, “Yes! You must have been in God’s shadow [hence the name Betzalel – b’tzal-El] to know that!” (Berakhot 55a)

Moses is like a man with a formal education and many degrees. Betzalel is a craftsman who works with his hands. Yet had they not worked together, with mutual respect, the Mishkan could not have been properly built!

Similarly, Betzalel was from the tribe of Judah, a powerful tribe descended from the matriarch Leah. God appointed Oholiab, from the tribe of Dan, to work alongside him. Dan was a much smaller tribe, descended from Bilhah, Rachel’s handmaid. In Exodus Rabbah 40.4, Rabbi Chanina says, “[Thus we see that] the great and the small are equal.”

Betzalel reminds us to respect all people: not only scholars, but those who work with their hands, no matter their pedigree.

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In A Time of Fear

Image: A mail bomb on display at the National Postal Museum (Wikimedia) Some rights reserved, see link.

Mail bombs were sent yesterday to prominent African-American political figures, to prominent women in the Democratic Party, to a prominent Jew, to leaders in the Democratic Party, and to the offices of a major cable news outlet.

Let that sink in – this how low the situation in the United States has gone. With an election only days away, and in some states already underway, some Americans have chosen to vote with bombs. They have chosen domestic terrorism – the spread of fear – as their strategy of persuasion.

The rhetoric of the President and his party over the past weeks has been full of dire warnings about a “caravan” of Latin hooligans and Middle Eastern terrorists headed to the U.S. Journalists, doing their job, investigated the “caravan” and discovered a group of desperate people, mostly from Guatemala and Honduras, mothers with children, a few men, and no Middle Eastern terrorists. By all accounts, the evidence is that they are people seeking asylum from the extreme gang violence in Central America.

It is perfectly legal to approach the border and ask for asylum. All of the evidence suggests that this is a peaceful group of people who are begging for safety.

The President, when asked for evidence of his claims, said, “There’s no proof of anything. But there could very well be.” In other words, “Don’t think. Just be afraid.”

Jewish tradition offers an alternative to mindless fear. We see the beginnings of it on the beach at the Red Sea:

As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!”

Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again.14 The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on. – Exodus 14:10-15

The Israelites are terrified of the Egyptians. Moses tells them not to be afraid, that God will take care of them. God says to Moses, “Quit crying and praying – get going!” The miracle comes only after the Israelites move to save themselves.

The refrain “Al tira-oo!” [Do not be afraid] appears regularly in the Bible. According to Maimonides, this is actually one of the 613 commandments. We are commanded not to fear.

In fact, there is only one fear permitted to us: fear of God. Yirat Adonai – fear of the Holy One – is considered a virtue. Any other fear borders on idolatry, because we are commanded not to fear anything but God.

The world is full of things that scare us. Jews have always had to deal with plenty of scary people. Our ancestor Abraham was so scared of two different kings that he swore his wife Sarah was his sister! Isaac did the same thing. Every time it got them into trouble. Every time it did them no good at all.

In Egypt, it was Pharaoh. Fearing Pharaoh did not get us out from under his thumb. Fearing God got us out of Egypt. Fearing God propelled us across the wilderness, to the edge of the Land, where Moses sent in the spies, who brought us back more scary news:

So they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. 33 And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.” – Numbers 13: 32-33

… and back we went to the wilderness to learn to fear God, not anyone else. Many centuries later, brave men and women settled the land of Israel again, and again there were scary things: war, and terrorism, and evil dictators flinging SCUD missiles. And again, the smart thing to do is to not be afraid: al tira-oo!

Al tira-oo: Do not be afraid.

Al tira-oo: Do not let your fears dictate to you.

Al tira-oo: Feel the fear, and go right on walking in the right path.

This is another testing moment. This is a moment not for violence, but for voting, for the peaceful practice of democracy. My vote-by-mail ballot sits on my desk, waiting to be filled out. For each American reading this, a ballot or a voting booth is waiting.

Don’t bomb. Don’t be afraid. VOTE.

 

 

Lives At Risk: Time to Stand Up for Transgender Americans

Image: A figure wearing a shirt and a name tag: “Transgender.” (Shutterstock)

The Trump administration is considering narrowly defining gender as a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth, the most drastic move yet in a governmentwide effort to roll back recognition and protections of transgender people under federal civil rights law. – NYT, 10/21/2018

I read this last night and my blood ran cold. I am writing to beg you, dear readers, to act today to let our lawmakers know that this re-definition of gender is evil, is not in the best interests of the United States, and that it must not happen.

If such a rule goes forward, it would be permission for physical attacks on people whose gender doesn’t fit into a tidy male-female paradigm. It will be encouragement for bullies to beat them up, and it will prevent many of them access to appropriate health care. It will create vast, horrible legal messes for those who have already corrected their legal papers to reflect who they actually are.

That includes a lot of people in my life, beloved to me.

THESE PEOPLE ARE NOT HURTING ANYONE. They are good citizens. They pay taxes, they vote, they do the best they can to pay their own way in the world (quite a trick, when one faces so much discrimination.) They are American troops, they are veterans of foreign wars, they are contributing members of our society.

Even if they weren’t all those things, they are human beings, made in the image of God, children of God, and they deserve to be treated with dignity.

No one will be better off if our government decides to put them all in the straightjacket of a strict binary gender system. It will not improve your life, and it sure as heck won’t improve mine. It will just torment people who haven’t done anything wrong. It will please some ignorant bigots, and it will give joy to some who think cruelty is fun.

What to do?  Here are some suggestions:

  1. Contact your elected representatives and let them know you think that anti-trans legislation or executive orders are NOT the American way.
  2. Give money to trans rights organizations.
    1. Transgender Law Center
    2. Freedom for All Americans 
    3. National Center for Transgender Equality
    4. Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund
    5. Trans Life Line (a hotline on which trans people help trans people)
    6. The Sylvia Rivera Law Project
    7. The TransWomen of Color Collective
    8. Gender Spectrum
    9. Trans-Tech Social Enterprise
    10. The Trans Justice Funding Project
    11. National Center for Lesbian Rights (working for trans civil rights since 2001)
    12. Trans Youth (TRUTH) Program
    13. TGI Justice Project
    14. Trans Student Educational Resources
    15. Immigration Equality and Action Fund
  3. Learn about the organizations above, and encourage your friends to support them.
  4. Write letters to the editor of your local paper.
  5. Write an op-ed for a publication you read.
  6. Contact state officials to push for state-level protections for vulnerable trans people
  7. Read books by trans authors. (Here’s where you can find some. Also another list.)
  8. If there is a trans person in your life, reach out, listen to them, ask how you can support them.

By the way, if you are thinking that fifteen organizations means that transgender people don’t need your support, you are mistaken. Most of those outfits run on shoestrings and provide legal and other support without which people will die.

If you are thinking, “But bathrooms! Rabbi, danger!” please read my post on that subject.

Please, please, choose at least a few of the action items above and do what you can.

Thank you, for whatever you do.

 

 

 

 

Jewish Resources for Abuse Survivors

Image: A siddur (prayer book) and tallis (prayer shawl) are tools that have helped me.

Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people; neither shalt thou stand idly by the blood of thy neighbour: I am HaShem. – Leviticus 19:16

The hashtag #WhyIDidntReport has been all over Twitter for the last few days. It is a response to the treatment of the women reporting Judge Brett Kavanaugh for sexual misconduct.

The public pillory of these women sickens me. They are not doing this frivolously. They have received death threats and their names will forever be associated with the horrible stories they have to tell. They knew that before they spoke up.

They are giving a warning about a danger of which they have personal knowledge. Such a warning is not only permitted by Jewish tradition, it is considered a good deed, since it may save others from harm. This man, if appointed by the President, will have tremendous power over the lives of many women now and in the future.

I decided that it was useful to add my name to the people protesting the mistreatment of these women with my own truth:

I am not posting this for sympathy. I am posting it as information. Yes, it is common for a person to keep quiet about a sexual attack, or series of attacks, because they believe that nothing good will come of reporting. We come out and tell our truths when we believe that it is important to do so, that it matters, that it is not “talebearing” but “truth telling.”

I posted because I felt strongly that to do so at this time was to help to make the point that the number of sexual abuse survivors is vast and we have many disencentives to report. I did not want to stand by while such damage was being done to these women. They spoke up because a man they knew to be of bad character was nearing appointment to the highest court in the land.

If you are or you know a survivor, here are resources in and outside the Jewish tradition I have found useful in my own recovery.

  1. Therapy: Say what you want about Sigmund Freud and his bad attitude about sexual abuse, therapy is an invaluable tool for recovery. I have been in therapy for 36 years and would not be here today without it. Find a therapist with expertise with sexual abuse recovery, if you able. Unfortunately access to therapy is a matter of financial privilege.
  2. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline for the United States is 1-800-273-8255. You are a good and valuable human being, even if you don’t feel like it, even if someone has told you otherwise. Call the line; friendly voices are waiting.
  3. Medication: There is no shame or failure in taking medication, whether anti-depressants or anti-anxiety meds or whatever it is you need. I and many others have found them useful. Some don’t find them useful, true, but do your own research and do what works for you.
  4. Teshuvah (Repentance): The person who needs to make teshuvah is the perpetrator. Teshuvah isn’t just an apology. It is taking responsibility for one’s actions and the consequences of those actions. It may involve restitution (e.g, money for medical care or therapy), and repairing other damage (e.g.to the victim’s reputation or career.) Few perpetrators of sexual violence make genuine teshuvah, but when they do it has the power to heal all parties and their community as well.
  5. Teshuvah (“Forgiveness”): The flip side of teshuvah is the role of the person who has been wronged. No matter how badly others may want them to forgive (aka “stop talking about it”) forgiveness is required only when there is teshuvah. Even then, “I forgive” doesn’t mean “it never happened” or “Now I have to trust you again.” It just means, “I acknowledge that you have paid your debt to me.” One may choose not to carry the burden of anger around, but that kind of forgiveness is up to the individual.
  6. Tefillah (Prayer): I’ve found these four prayers very helpful. If you click on the link to the prayer, it will take you to an article about it, the words of the prayer and some alternatives.
    1. Elohai neshamah reminds me that my soul is pure, no matter what has been done to me. It is a gift of the Holy One and it is mine. The alternative translation, Thanks for Life and Breath, is a prayer that may be helpful if breath is particularly significant for you.
    2. El nah, refanah la is the simplest prayer for healing, taught to us by Moses.
    3. Asher Yatzar  is a prayer for the body, giving thanks for what works. Traditionally it was said after going to the bathroom. For many of us survivors, our relationship with our own bodies is fraught with difficulty. Our bodies carry our experiences even when we deny them. I have found that wrestling with Asher Yatzar, finding the words I want it to say, is a healing exercise I return to periodically.
    4. Rofeh HaCholim (Healer of the sick) is often referred to as Mishebeirach (May the one who blessed.) This particular version of the prayer is a petition for the healing of a sick person to refuah shleimah, a complete healing. It also reminds me that I am not alone: that there are other people with my history, and other Jews who are suffering.
    5. The specifically Jewish manner of prayer has been very helpful to me. I feel safe wrapped tightly in my tallit (prayer shawl.)  I like wearing tefillin, although I know for some survivors they are not helpful. Pay attention to how different postures and practices affect you, what works, what doesn’t. Find what comforts and supports you. Jews pray as free adults: you do not have to do anything just because someone else says it is the “right way.”
  7. Tzedakah (Charity) – How can giving money away help with recovery? Sexual abuse is a crime of power. In a capitalist society, money is power. Giving tzedakah, giving money to correct injustice, to relieve someone else’s suffering, can be a very empowering experience. The amount matters less than the fact of giving. When I look for someone less fortunate than myself and I contribute to their well-being, when I relieve some part of their suffering, I exercise my power in the world. I remind myself that I can do good, no matter what bad has been done to me. For more about tzedakah, see Nine Facts About Tzedakah.
  8. Psalms – Yes, these ancient prayers are in the Bible but I give them their own category. The Psalms are powerful, both bringing up emotion and expressing it. I recommend some of the newer translations; the ones below are less expressive to a modern ear.
    1. Psalm 6 “I am weary with groaning; every night I drench my bed, I melt my couch in tears.” This psalmist complains to God about insomnia, anxiety and depression. At the end, they express their hope that better times lie ahead.
    2. Psalm 22 The psalmist wants to know why God doesn’t seem to be listening to them. They feel abandoned and lost in a world full of terrors. The language is vivid: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint;
      my heart is become like wax; it is melted in mine inmost parts.” At the end, they envision the world they wish for, the world that God surely intends.
    3. Psalm 23 This is the famous “the Lord is my shepherd” psalm. Remember that in Biblical times a shepherd was a fighter who could defend the sheep from wolves if need be!
    4. Psalm 55 expresses the psalmist’s frustration at people who say ugly things and spread evil tales. They writes about their heart “writhing within” and of a horror that overwhelms. They wish bad things to happen to their enemies, but they don’t seek to revenge themselves; they leave revenge to God.
    5. Psalm 126. The most famous line of this little psalm is “They who sow in tears shall reap in joy.” It is a song about healing and wholeness, an arrival in better days. Debbie Friedman set that line to music, and it is powerful.
  9. Tanakh (Bible): 
    1. Some stories and books in Tanakh (the Bible) may be triggering to abuse survivors. If something is upsetting, wait and study it with a teacher. A good teacher can help you find your way through a difficult text. It’s also OK to say, “I don’t want to study that text now.” There is no shame in knowing what you can and cannot handle at a given time.
    2. Genesis 1 is a story about Creation. God creates the world by separating light from dark, dry land from the sea, etc. It is an orderly world, a peaceful world, and at the end, God looks at the world and says that it is “very good.” I like to read this chapter and remind myself that the Jewish vision of the world is of a good world, and I am a good person in that world.
    3. Genesis 21:1-20 is one of the ugliest parts of the Abraham narrative, but it ends with mercy from God. Hagar is Sarah’s handmaiden, and she is made to bear a son for Abraham. Then, when Sarah has her own son, Sarah takes a dislike to Hagar and her son, and demands that Abraham put them out in the desert. However, God hears Hagar’s prayers – not only do she and her son Ishmael survive, he becomes the father of a great nation, too.
    4. Genesis 38 Tamar is the daughter-in-law of Judah. When his first two sons (married to her) die, he stalls about marrying her to the third. It is her right to be married to him, so that she will have children, for without children women are destitute in this society. Tamar takes matters into her own hands: she tricks Judah into having sex with her, by disguising herself as a prostitute. Then when she is pregnant, she comes to claim her rightful place in the family. Judah is shocked, but he admits that he wronged her.
    5. Leviticus 19, the Holiness Code. This chapter, at the very heart of the Torah, specifies that abuse of vulnerable people is always wrong. There are specific verses that protect the disabled, women, and children. Even strangers must be treated fairly and well.
    6. Esther is a short book about a heroic woman. Early in the book, she seems to be at the mercy of men: her uncle, the eunuch in the harem, the king. When a crisis arises she owns her power and she does so not exactly as Uncle Mordecai told her, and not to please the king. She does what she thinks is right.
    7. The book of Ruth begins with misfortune. Ruth’s husband, brother-in-law, and father-in-law die. She follows her beloved mother-in-law back to Israel where women of her nationality are not seen respectfully. Still, by means of her virtue and some stubbornness, she finds a home in this new place and in the end has a very special place in its history.
  10. And now, for a more difficult item: Exodus 20:11. It is usually translated “Honor your father and mother.” It gives some of us a lot of grief, because it may have been used against us. The word in Hebrew that people translate as “honor” is kabeyd, “give weight to.” It means to treat parents with respect, and not leave them destitute. However, we may not obey a parent who tells us to sin or to break the law (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah Siman 240:15.) We can distance ourselves from a parent who persists in lewd speech or behavior towards us, or who is a threat to our children. It is forbidden for a parent to abuse a child by citing the commandment.

These are things that I have found helpful. I may write another article in future when I think of other resources.

I am not going to enable comments on this post – I really do not want to discuss the self-revelation I made in the beginning. If family wants to talk, you know how to reach me. Otherwise, I hope that what I have provided is useful.

Ruthat3
“O God, the soul you have placed within me is pure.”

 

 

Life as a Balancing Act

Image: Woman balances on a tightrope as a hand holds the rope. (ElisaRiva/Pixabay.)

This is a time to think seriously about balance.

There are many terrible things in the news. I wrote about that in A Bitter Psalm for Our Times earlier this week, and more has happened since then.

On Twitter today, there were angry people ranting all over the place. There was some nasty gloating, too. Neither of those is going to accomplish much – it’s noise. Here’s what I propose, for those who are feeling stymied:

It’s time to strike a balance between self-care and action. These are the questions I’m asking myself, in the interest of both self-care and effective action.

  1. Am I spending energy being angry in useless ways? That accomplishes nothing. Fighting with bots on Twitter may scratch an itch, but it doesn’t effect change. Instead, I need to focus on keeping myself strong and then using my strength in useful ways.
  2. Self care is not a luxury. That includes both care of the body and care of the soul. This week I went to see my friend Delane Sims, who operates Delane’s Natural Nail Care here in San Leandro. We caught up on each other’s lives while she restored my feet and painted my toenails. Delane is a world-changer and a woman of faith, and I know that when I spend time with her, my feet will feel better and my priorities will clear up. What restores your soul?
  3. Self care includes time to hug my loved ones and appreciate the good in the world, whether in nature, or in the deeds of good people. For some of us, it means daily prayer, or exercise, or meditation, or some mix of the three.
  4. Self care allows me to take on activism in the world.
  5. Activism can take many forms, too. We tend to think of activists as people who go on marches and demonstrations, but that’s not possible for all of us. Here are some ideas from my own list of “what this disabled rabbi can do today:”
    1. This blog post.
    2. Call my senators and congresspersons with concern item each, every day.
    3. Write postcards to my senators and congresspersons, so they’ll know I’m serious, literate, and willing to spend postage.
    4. Write a letter to the editor of my local paper.
    5. Write an op-ed for a publication I read regularly.
    6. Subscribe to and read at least one newspaper.
    7. I can choose one organization that helps immigrants and use their website to be better educated, and to learn ways I can help.
    8. I can ask friends: Are you registered to vote? Would you like help registering?
    9. Send encouraging letters or emails to the people I see fighting the good fight.
    10. Encourage friends who are able to march or travel to do social justice work.
  6. I can also exercise self-care and action in what I choose NOT to do. It is important to stay informed, but I do not need to watch cable news 24/7. In fact, I don’t need to watch that stuff at all. One good newspaper or news program a day is plenty.
  7. I can choose not to argue with people. Arguing rarely changes anyone’s mind, especially over social media. Usually all it does is upset me.
  8. I can choose to make my social interactions as pleasant as possible. I can choose to be cheerful and helpful.
  9. If I truly cannot choose to be cheerful, then I can seek some help for my anxiety or my unhappiness. Perhaps I need to look into better self-care, or learn better boundaries. Perhaps I’m depressed. Whatever it is, I need to take care of myself, or ask for help.
  10. When all else fails, I can use the serenity prayer to sort things out:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Self-care is taking a little time to quietly sort through the things that are bothering me. Can I change them? Accept them? And if I cannot decide, or if I cannot see how I can possibly sort this out, with whom can I talk it out?

As disturbing as things are, they are not hopeless. There is much that can be done to relieve the suffering in this world, including our own.

He [Rabbi Hillel] used to say: If I am not for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, then when? –Pirkei Avot 1:14.

 

A Bitter Psalm for Our Times

Image: B&W Photo of a crying child. (PublicDomain/Pixabay)

We live in a time when terrible things are happening to our nation and the world. Sometimes I cannot believe what I see on the news, then I talk with people who’ve been there and seen that with their own eyes, and I am forced to believe that there are babies in cages, children shuttled all over who knows where, and a nation built by immigrants led by someone who uses words like “infestation” to describe human beings.

People that I trust have personally witnessed the detention of children. They are not in “summer camp” or “boarding school.” They are held in prison-like conditions, without their parents knowing their whereabouts, and without knowing when or how they will see their parents again. Some appear to have been transported around the country to foster care, which sounds good until we realize that the foster parents have no information about the parents, or how long the separation may last. There seems to be a lack of concern at both the Department of Homeland Security and at the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as in the Oval Office itself.

Discussions about the alleged guilt of the parents is completely beside the point. The persons receiving this punishment are children, innocent children who have done nothing to anyone. To those who blame the parents, I say, “Do you know for a fact that each individual parent is a fraud?”

What we DO know for certain that such a separation from family is permanently damaging to children. We know it from Holocaust survivors who were “hidden children” or “kindertransport children” , even those who were able to reconnect with relatives, and even those who were adopted by very nice people. Without exception, the people I know who survived in that way are grateful for their survival, and feel a profound sense of loss even in old age.

It is only human to weep in the face of such trauma and such evil – but what are we to do besides weep? Many good people have been demonstrating, reporting what they know about the locations of children, calling their elected officials, and doing other good works – gemilut hasadim – acts of lovingkindness – to right these great wrongs.

Meanwhile, our Congress has been busy remaking the safety net that stands between the working poor and utter disaster. They have made use of our distraction (by the great crime on our borders) to pass a budget that gives tax cuts to billionaires while cutting  Medicare and Medicaid.

These wrongs are nothing new in history. Here is what the psalmist had to say about cruel and unjust rulers in his own time:

Psalm 58

For the leader; “Do not Destroy.” Of David. A michtam.

O mighty ones, do you really decree what is just? Do you judge mankind with equity?

In your hearts you devise wrongs; your hands you deal out violence in the land.
The wicked are defiant from birth; the liars go astray from the womb.
Their venom is like that of a snake, a deaf viper that stops its ears
so as not to hear the voice of charmers or the expert mutterer of spells.
O God, smash their teeth in their mouth; shatter the fangs of lions, Eternal One!
let them melt, let them vanish like water; may their arrows be blunted when they aim their bows;
like a slug that melts away as it moves; like a stillborn child that never sees the sun!
Before the thorns grow into a bramble, may God whirl them away alive in fury.
The righteous man will rejoice when he sees revenge; he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked.
Men will say, “There is, then, a reward for the righteous; there is, indeed, divine justice on earth.”

This is an ugly psalm, with shocking sentiments. It gives voice to the anger that a good person feels when such cruelty is done by the powerful. It is also a reminder that while such evil may prevail for a while, in the end there is only the judgement of history and, for believers, the judgement of God.

If you are angry at what is being done to innocent children, know that you are in good company. But know, also, that all of us who are U.S. citizens are complicit in these evils: our tax dollars are paying for these crimes. We must raise our voices in any way we can, keeping in mind that we want to do less harm to the families, not more. In my next post I will address some specific actions we can take.

Woe to those who have done such things, and woe to those who do not care.

June is LGBTQ Pride Month, 2018

Image: “We are ALL made in God’s Image” in Hebrew and English, on a poster identifying the group from Temple Sinai, Oakland in the Oakland Pride Parade in 2016. For full picture, see the end of this article. All rights reserved, Linda Burnett.

When I think of “Pride Month” I think of stories:

I think of the queer folk at the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969, fighting back and starting what would come to be known as the Stonewall Riots. Click the link, or Google them, and learn your history, fellow LGBTQs. They weren’t respectable. They weren’t nice. But all the rest of us owe them for the progress we’ve made since. I was 14 and hadn’t heard the word “lesbian” yet, but my life had changed for the better, even though I didn’t know it yet.

I think of my first SF Gay Pride, in maybe 1987 . I was not yet “out,” and was terrified to come out, because as the mother of two small children I knew that there was a lot at stake. Women like me lost children to homophobic relatives all the time in those days. One court wasn’t deterred by the fact that dad was a convicted murderer: he was still seen as a better parent than the lesbian.

I think of the next Pride in SF, when I was out, and I took the kids. It was a defining moment for our family – we were not going back in any closets. Jim asked me why the guys on the Folsom Street float were dressed in leather. I told him, “They like to play dress up.” He nodded his five year old head and promptly lost interest in them, but the bear float guys throwing teddy bears into the crowd won his heart.

I think about the next few Pride marches in SF; the AIDS epidemic was raging. ACT-UP was re-teaching the lesson from Stonewall: fighting for our rights could not be “nice” because we were fighting for our very lives. I wasn’t at much risk for AIDS, but I saw what was happening to the guys, and I saw what the courts were doing to LGBTQ parents, and I knew that we were all fighting for our lives.

I think about how times have changed, and how people haven’t changed. We’re in the middle of backlash now: certain folks are trying to roll back the advances made by people of color, LGBTQ people, women, disabled people.

We must remember that we are all in this together. We must not let the  social conservatives roll back the calendar to the bad old days. “Social conservatives” sounds so nice, like sociable jam or something – but relative to us, they aren’t nice, not one bit. You may not have my rights, social conservatives. I will fight you every step of the way.

Celebrate! because they don’t want us to. Be proud! because if we aren’t, who will? And fight back, in the primaries, in the general election, whenever you have a shot at a voting booth, vote!

Judaism is unequivocal on the necessity of speaking up when something is wrong. Leviticus 19 commands that we not stand by while another human being bleeds. Hillel speaks of the necessity of speaking up for ourselves and for others:

If I am not for myself, who is for me? When I am for myself, what am I? If not now, when? – Pirkei Avot 1:14

This Pride month, let us be for ourselves and for one another and against hatred in all its disguises.

Pride Parade Sinai Group
Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin,far right, with 4 members of Temple Sinai of Oakland, including me. Photo by Linda Burnett, all rights reserved.