Knower of Secrets/Lover of Diversity


Rabbi Lisa Edwards, BCC

Shabbat Vayera  5779 October 26, 2018 [note: offered the night before the killings at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg]

One of my clergy colleagues and friends is in her early 50s and is a wonderful singer and guitarist.  She has two teenage children still at home (the third is away at school) . The other night she was in the kitchen cleaning up after dinner.  “Alexa, play Fleetwood Mac (I don’t really remember what she asked Alexa to play, but something old school). But the water was running, so “Alexa, a little louder.”  She was cheerfully singing along when her youngest teen came storming out of her room, shouting “could you turn the music down please? I’m trying to study!”

The next night she and her 17 year old were watching a movie until midnight.  He went to take a shower, she picked up her electric guitar and started playing Iggy Pop.  Her son reappeared, “Put down that guitar, please! It’s after midnight! I’m trying to wind down, not up!”

If the world is seeming to you a little topsy-turvy these days, you’re not alone.

And it’s not just now, either.  This week in Parashat Vayera we read more stories of the trials and tribulations of our ancestors, the founders of the Jewish people, Abraham and Sarah.

If you think things are topsy-turvy for us — and I agree with you — think about poor Sarah and Abraham.  Already in their elder years when they’re called by a God unknown to them, and told to leave the place they were living and head to a land unknown to them, they do so while encountering quite a few “misadventures” on the way.   Including the end of last week’s Torah portion Lech-lecha when God instructs Abraham (and he obeys) to circumcise himself at age 99, along with his 13 year old son, Ishmael, and all the men of his household.  Quite a day in the household of Abraham and Sarah.

And this week’s Torah portion picks up with Abraham lounging about in front of his tent — the midrash (legend) has it that he was still recovering from the circumcison, when 3 strangers appear and verify what God told Abraham earlier — that his wife Sarah, barren until now, will, at age 90, give birth to a child by him.  This God is quite the jokester — no wonder both Abraham and Sarah laugh at the news. Go ahead and laugh, God had said last week, in fact name the kid Yitzkhak, “he laughs,” but you’ll see it’s true.

As if that wasn’t news enough, God comes to tell Abraham the plan to destroy the twin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, if it is indeed true that they have acted altogether according to the outrage that has reached me.   Abraham steps up, stands with the people of these cities, bargaining with God to spare them for the sake of the righteous that might be found there.   It’s a famous scene — “Will you sweep away the innocent with the guilty? Asks Abraham what if 50 innocent should be found there? And then offers up one of my very favorite verses in all of Torah, when Abraham says to God:

“Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring dath upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike.  Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”

Go, Abraham, he gets God all the way down to 10 innocent, with God saying, “I will not destroy, for the sake of 10.”

What does it mean then, that the cities are destroyed?

Fewer than 10 were innocent? Or God lied?

The story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is harrowing, by the way.  I won’t tell you more tonight, but you should read it.

And by the way, if you think that some of the fire and brimstone that rains down upon our queer community from Bible readers originates with the idea that the sin of Sodom was homosexuality, let me read you a short passage from the Biblical book of Ezekiel [16:49-50] giving the Jewish version of the sin of Sodom:

הנה־זה היה עון סדם אחותך גאון שבעת־לחם ושלות השקט היה לה ולבנותיה ויד־עני ואביון לא החזיקה

Only this was the sin of your sister Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquillity; yet she did not support the poor and the needy.

ותגבהינה ותעשינה תועבה לפני ואסיר אתהן כאשר ראיתי

In their haughtiness, they committed abomination before Me; and so I removed them, as you saw.

If the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah wasn’t enough for Abraham (how disappointed must he have been in God?)  Along comes God with one more simple demand (actually there was more in between, but you’ll read it for yourself) — when Isaac, beloved son of Sarah and Abraham actually does appear in their old age (90 and 100 years old), God comes to Abraham (where is Sarah in all this, we don’t know) and says, “Take your son, your favorite one, Isaac,whom you love and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights i will show you.”  You might remember from the second day of Rosh Hashanah when we read this story again each year, that at the last minute, as Abraham has raised a knife to bring down to slay his son, an angel intervenes and tells him to stop. A ram appears caught in a thicket and it is offered up instead.

If you’re mystified by this story, you’re not alone.  The sages and commentators — of old and contemporary — discuss it endlessly.  One of my favorite interpretations is that Abraham failed the test — that God wanted him to say no to offering up Isaac.  The proof being that God sends an angel to stop Abraham, that in fact God and Abraham never speak to each other again in the Torah even though Abraham lives many years after this event (nor btw, do Isaac and Abraham ever see each other again — at least not to our knowledge.  Nor Abraham and Sarah. This request of God, and Abraham’s seeming acquiesence may well have been a life changing, family breaking moment).

It occurred to me this week that perhaps God is the one who failed the test…testS.  Perhaps the conversation with the angel takes place all in Abraham’s imagination. Perhaps he puts down the knife of his own accord, refusing God’s command.  Perhaps it is Abraham walking away from God, rather than God walking away from Abraham. This week makes that argument seem even more convincing with all the latest ways our lives and our world are being turned topsy-turvy.

But Jewish tradition — though it tries out all these various theories — doesn’t primarily come down in favor of the idea that God and Abraham separate.   Or Abraham and Isaac. Or Abraham and Sarah.

Jewish tradition does, however, remind us in these stories that family relationships can be rough, that relationships with God can be rocky, that life is unknown journey, even when your in good company, you never know what’s coming at you next.

And our sages even sometimes opt to make the Torah stories — ambiguous enough, confusing enough, challenging enough in and of themselves — even more challenging.  For example, why didn’t Abraham and Sarah have a child all those many years of their life together? The mishnah makes a surprising suggestion: Abraham and Sarah were tumtum.  Tumtum? Sounds like a good Halloween costume — what is it? Some of my colleagues have done a lot of impressive research on the tumtum, and other gender variant people mentioned in Jewish sacred texts.  The following is all drawn from an article by my friend and colleague, Rabbi Elliot Kukla, a transperson:

The rabbis of the Mishna who lived in the first two centuries of the Common Era, identify at least four possible genders/sexes:1 the “zakhar” (male) and the “nekevah” (female), as well as two sexes that are neither male nor female, called the “tumtum” and the “androgynos.” They also had two other categories for gender identity that don’t appear at birth, but develop later in life. The “saris” is born male but later develops female traits; the “aylonit” is born female, but later develops male traits.

The tumtum appears 17 times in the Mishna; 23 times in the Tosefta; 119 times in the Babylonian Talmud; 22 times in the Jerusalem Talmud and hundreds of times in midrash, commentaries, and halacha. The androgynos appears 21 times in the Mishna; 19 times in the Tosefta 109 times in the Babylonina Talmud and countless times in midrash and halacha. [footnote #2 to Rabbi Elliot Kukla’s 2006 article, “How I met the Tumtum.” ]


“The midrash teaches that Adam, the first human being, was an androgynos (Bereshit Rabah 8). While in the Babylonian Talmud (Yevamot 64a) the radical claim is made that both the first Jews, Abraham and Sarah, were actually tumtumim who later transitioned genders to become male and female. According to some of the most influential texts of our tradition, the first human being and the first Jews were gender-variant people!

What I love about the ways our sages describe and define all this gender fluidity is that it just exists — it’s real — gender-variant people not only exist in the world — they started everything!  Well, okay, with God’s help.

As alienated from God as some of this week’s Torah stories (or this week’s news stories) might make us, we can circle back around to the ways our ancestors — earlier readers of these same texts — could take them in hand and turn them into something useable, meaningful, more relevant perhaps to what they were seeing in their families.  How easily they offer these possibilities about the first human couple and the first Jewish couple being gender variant, being not like them, or perhaps more like them.

No wonder Jews have from earliest times climbed on board with the idea that each one of us is made in God’s image, b’tzelem elohim.  No matter our differences from and samenessess to each other, we are also each one of us our own self or selves. And in whatever ways we are our own selves, we are also like God — which means we are not alone, not the only one, not the one who could never be understood by anyone else.  Earlier this evening i mentioned a traditonal blessing for being in a crowd of people: Blessed are You God, knower of secrets. Baruch atah Adonai eloheinu melech ha-olam, khakham ha-ra-zim חכם הרזים

There’s another traditional blessing i hold dear — the blessing for seeing someone unusual — perhaps scary unusual — perhaps unrecognizably unusual.  The blessing is not what we might guess — it’s NOT thank you for not making me like that — Rather, the blessings is: Baruch atah Adonai eloheinu melech ha-olam, m’shaneh ha-bri-ot Blessed is the God who varies the forms of creation/who makes the creatures different.  Who mixes it up! And likes US that way!!!

In this week of topsy-turvy, of new and genuine and scary threats, in this week when we remember our dead and the bad times they lived through or died during, in this week of fear and palpable danger, coming forth from people in power who would erase us if they could…let us think about our ancestors who made the world less scary to themselves by coming to understand that God created each one of us to be our own true selves, different from all others, yet equally real, equally blessed — and just the way God (the knower of secrets and the creator & admirer of diversity)  intended us to be.

Shabbat shalom