5774 Rosh Hashanah Drash
By Rabbi D’ror Chankin Gould
A few short months ago, I became the first openly gay man to receive ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, the Los Angeles seminary of the Conservative Movement.
In that historic moment of inclusion for LGBT Jews, I was granted the immense privilege of speaking to the assembled on behalf of my class. I opened with these words:
“They shut the door behind him. He never looked back. We lost him forever.
Today, Elisha ben Abuya is our teacher…Though his true name was Elisha, he was called, simply and painfully, Acher: Other.
It is the Other’s broken voice which calls out to us this morning.
Let us imagine that the text we are about to learn, a selection from Avot d’rebbe Natan (an early Rabbinic collection of wisdom and ethical guidance) were Elisha’s last angry words as he shut the door behind him, as he marched away from all those who had once loved him, as he glanced over his shoulder at those who had learned to despise him, as his eyes begged for recognition for humanity for another chance: these were his words:
Elisha ben Abuya says: One in whom there are good works, who has studied much Torah, to what may they be likened? To a person who builds first with stones and afterward with bricks: even when much water comes and collects by their side, it does not dislodge them.
But one in whom there are no good works, though they study Torah, to what may they be likened? To a person who builds first with bricks and afterward with stones: even when a little water gathers, it overthrows them immediately.
Elisha ben Abuya taught: you can learn as much Torah as you want my friends, but without good works it is worthless. When he says “good works” what does Acher, what does the consummate outsider mean? One’s biography is always integral to the Torah they teach. As such, it must be that when the ostracized voice of Elisha calls out for “good works” he means inclusion, he means welcome, he means embrace.
When the Torah you teach is a weapon, when the Torah you pass on is Hateful, when the Torah you live is exclusionary, then you’ve lost the whole game. The edifice won’t stand. One small wind, one light rain, and the whole building will collapse…
The Torah which can withstand the weather of time is a Torah of Love. It is a Torah which refuses to call our children, our brothers, our sisters, our parents, “Other”, “Outsider.”…
From that point in the ordination sermon, I went on to talk about the responsibility of all the assembled to bring in the Elishas who are waiting on the cold doorsteps, longing to be inside. To whisper, “Elisha, it’s been too long, I love you, please come home.”
I was generously asked to share a version of that talk with you here today, on Rosh HaShanah. And I think it’s certainly a message which we here at BCC can relate to, one we take to heart.
Truthfully, as a community, I think we excel at welcoming. BCC is a community truly open to people of all sexual orientations, gender identities, ages, ethnicities, and abilities.
There is always room for growth in the never-ending quest to be radically inclusive, we are no more immune to error than any other community, but on the whole, here at BCC we’re doing quite well.
In fact, I daresay, many of us in the room today relate less to the people who have locked Elisha out, and more to Elisha himself, to the Other waiting to be welcomed home.
So, to that end, I have a different question for us today, for all you Elisas in the room: What happens when the door once slammed in our faces, does reopen? What happens when those who hurt us, oppressed us, denied us our humanity, learn their lesson, change, open the door? What happens when they DO whisper, “it’s been too long, I love you, please come home.”
What do we do then?
The question is deceptively simple. We would all like to believe that when those who have wronged us change their ways, we will react with graciousness and forgiveness, we will walk through that door, we will honor their teshuvah, we will come back to the home we’ve been missing for far too long.
But in reality, in my experience, it’s not that easy, not that straightforward, not that simple.
Many of us, myself included, are grudge-holders. Our scars are deep and fresh and painful. Our trust was broken. Our dignity was stripped of us. We are exhausted from all the false hope for reconciliation.
A parent or a sibling or a friend, who kicked us out, who wouldn’t come to our wedding, who hid our identity, who made us feel so small… they have seen the error of their ways, but can we actually come back? Do we know how? Do we even want to?
A leader, a politician, a rabbi, a government, a court, which once called us “other”, denied us our basic rights, finally comes to see the light of justice. We are finally granted that welcome we have been fighting for tooth and nail. It’s blood, sweat, and tears which brought us this victory. And we won! And we celebrate!
But, really, now they want another chance? Now they want us to trust? Now they are inviting us inside? After all these dark and lonely years?!
It’s been so long that we’ve been sitting out here in the cold, do we know how to walk through that door? Do we want to?
For many of us, our internal dialogue sounds something like this:
“You’ve changed NOW?! It’s too late, the pain is already inflicted, the damage is done, the relationship is irreparable, I can never trust you again. Just because you have conveniently seen the light, doesn’t mean I’m ready to come back to a home that is no longer my home.”
Six years ago, when the Conservative Movement initially decided to allow for gay and lesbian rabbis, I was too angry to take them up on their offer. I had been too wounded, it was too fresh, I couldn’t let it go.
In the year which followed the ruling, I didn’t enter school. Instead, on my computer at work, I listened over and over again to the Dixie Chicks. Their lyrics sang what my heart felt: “I’m not ready to make nice/ I’m not ready to back down/It’s too late to make it right/ I probably wouldn’t it if I could.”
Our great ancestors, revered though they are, were human and flawed just like us. Sarah and Abraham in today’s Torah portion, just like so many of us, react to open doors with closed hearts:
Sarah was an outsider. She was a barren woman longing for a child. She had no legacy, no continuity, no future. When Sarah is granted a child, she does not react with grace and generosity.
Instead, she is filled with the jealousy and fear which have become her companions, which are familiar and now calcified coping mechanisms. She is so threatened by the presence of Abraham’s other son, Ishmael, that she banishes Ishmael and his mother. When she finally is on the road from outsider to insider, Sarah abuses her power, she exhibits vengefulness.
Abraham too was an outsider, he left his homeland to forge a completely new identity, and he never went back. His beliefs were radically different that his neighbors, and so he became even more alien. Moreover, the project that he gave everything up for, Judaism, had no heir, no chance of survival. When Abraham is granted his second child, Isaac, the one whom God designated as the rightful successor to Jewish leadership, he does not react with grace and generosity.
Instead, his actions are characterized by callousness and cowardice, which are familiar and now calcified coping mechanisms. He is so closed and so hard, that when his wives bicker, when they wound one another, he does nothing, he says nothing, he cries not one tear; he instead shrugs his shoulders and allows those around him to disintegrate into hurt and rage and hunger and pain. When he is finally on the road from outsider to insider, Abraham shirks his responsibility, he exhibits spinelessness.
This is not say, that Sarah and Abraham were evil or cruel. To the contrary, they were the founders of our people, courageous and kind, pioneers in creating the great tradition which we have been privileged enough to inherit.
But they were also wounded and unforgiving and inflexible, just like us. For many of us, like Abraham and Sarah, when we are finally on the road from outsider to insider, we lack kindness, we lack courage, we lack energy. We want to hurt those who hurt us, we want to punish them. We want to walk away from the past, to ignore it, to erase it, not to painfully confront it once again.
We choose to stay where we are, on the cold outside, not because it’s pleasant, but because it has become home, because it’s safe. Forgiveness and change are too unstable, too painful, too frightening. We’d rather make due out here, we’d rather remain on the outside.
But on Rosh HaShanah our rabbis wisely gave us another model, one of the great heroes of the Bible, Hannah.
Hannah was an outsider. Hannah, the protagonist of today’s Haftarah (the reading from the Prophets), Hannah knew what it was to sit alone and in the cold, wishing to be let inside. Hannah too, was barren. And Hannah, too, was out of power. She was surrounded by insiders.
Her husband, by virtue of his gender, had power and mobility and joy and options: he was on the inside. Her co-wife, Penina, by virtue of her fertility, had legacy and hope and respect and safety: she was on the inside. The priest, Eli, who presided over the temple in which Hannah prayed, by virtue of his position, had privilege and opportunity and comfort and control: he was on the inside. But not Hannah.
So Hannah, the outsider, used what little power she had left: she prayed. She came to God and she poured out her heart. She whispered her prayers with her lips moving, barely making an audible sound.
Hannah did what she could to change her circumstances, to seek a better life, to turn her loneliness into peace, to make her dreams a reality.
And Hannah, like many outsiders before her after her, like all of the Elishas of the world, was seen merely as Other. When the priest Eli saw Hannah in prayer, he assumed she was drunk. He called her names, he stripped her of her dignity, he denied her her humanity.
We, in this room, know what that’s like. We know what it’s like to fight for justice and to face scorn. We know what it’s like to cling to whatever power we can get our hands on, even when it’s meager. We know what it’s like to be called Other, to have no identity, no dignity, no respect.
But Eli the Priest, learns from his mistakes. He does teshuvah. He owns his errors and he makes a mid-course correction. Eli himself prays for Hannah’s dreams to be fulfilled. He says, “Go in peace and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked.”
And so Hannah, the Outsider, the Elisha of the story, finds that the door has been reopened.
Those on the inside are seeking her welfare, and indeed, she bears a child: her dream is fulfilled.
The one who caused her the most pain, is now inviting her inside.
And contrary to human nature, maybe even against her better judgment, Hannah acts with grace and generosity, with forgiveness and kindness, with courage and compassion. She walks back through that painful door, crosses the treacherous threshold, and tries to re-engage with those on the inside.
On the road from outsider to insider, Hannah shows us a path worth following.
There are some doors which have been slammed in our faces, which will never reopen. There are some people who have wounded us, who will not change. There are some aggressors, who are unsafe, who we cannot reengage with for fear of our safety, our sanity, our children, ourselves. There are some institutions which have attacked us, which continue to do so.
But sometimes, every once in a while, there is change. Sometimes there is teshuvah. Sometimes there is learning and newness and growth, even from the people who we thought would never relent.
“Elisha, Elisha, it’s been too long, please come home.”
This Rosh HaShanah, may we build the courage and the love, the selflessness and the fortitude, to greet opportunity with open arms.
When we are welcomed back home, when we are met with true teshuvah, may we have the grace and the generosity to dig inside and find the voice of Hannah, whispering almost inaudibly in the deepest recesses of our wounded hearts, may we find her voice and may we hear it.
She’s saying, “let it go, it’s enough already, it’s time, let it go.”
May we all be privileged to witness change we never expected, forgot to hope for.
May we meet that change with Hannah’s courage and Hannah’s grace.