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Spies of Pride – Sh’Lach L’Cha: Shabbat Message by Rabbi Greg Weisman

Shabbat Message by Rabbi Greg Weisman graphic for Temple Beth El of Boca Raton

Today is the 55th anniversary of Stonewall. On that night in New York’s Greenwich Village, confronting the frequent threat of a police raid, patrons resisted efforts to be taken into custody. Scuffles turned into pushing and folks being knocked to the ground. Those who saw that grew incensed, who then moved on to overtake police vehicles. Resistance turned into demonstration turned into rioting; but eventually the police force brought reinforcements.  Several hours later calm was restored, until the following night. Members and supporters of the LGBTQ community, having been there the night before or learned of from the press, returned for a second night of rioting, creating a historical moment that is often regarded as the kickoff of the gay rights movement. As the poet Allen Ginsberg noted, “It’s about time we did something to assert ourselves.”

While Stonewall was a successful moment, it did not mean the end of violence and discrimination against the LGBTQ community. Over the following decade there were concerted efforts to legalize the ostracization of gays and lesbians, most notably in teaching. In Dade County, Florida, St. Paul, Minnesota, and Eugene, Oregon laws were passed that made it illegal for LGBTQ folk to serve as teachers. And in 1978, a ballot initiative sought to make that the law in the State of California.

At a time when so many queer people chose to live closeted lives, with the rightful fear of what might happen to them if they came out, the natural result was that so many people believed that they didn’t know anyone who was gay. Our nation’s culture encouraged them to be fearful of what and who they didn’t know, and to let that fear spiral into conspiracies, that gay men were pedophiles or they would recruit children into a life of homosexuality.

Some heroes confronted this directly, like Harvey Milk. A gay activist born to a Jewish-Lithuanian family; Harvey was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1978. While campaigning against the California effort to force LGBTQ folk out of teaching, he famously said, “I want to recruit you!” Playing with the fears that so many had of gay men, he turned the idea of recruitment on its head by saying, “I want to recruit you for the fight to preserve your democracy…[and those who] are trying to constitutionalize bigotry.” His efforts were successful, and in November the ballot measure failed.

Harvey Milk and his supporters convinced the people of California that they had nothing to fear from the boogeymen that had been fabricated – no easy feat. But a month later he was assassinated; his killer shown mercy by avoiding a murder conviction, and the LGBTQ community in San Francisco subjected to painful violence in the resulting unrest.

Tamping down fear of the unknown is something we have been struggling with for thousands of years, and we learn of a great example of it in this week’s parashah, Shlach L’cha. In it, Caleb and the spies travel into the Land of Israel to scout it on behalf of the Israelites. They return back pronouncing the land flowing with milk and honey, bearing ample fruit, but inhabited by powerful people in fortified cities. Caleb assures Moses and the Israelites that they can take possession of the land – as God had promised – but the other spies let their fears get the best of them. “The country devours its settlers!” they cried, prompting the Israelites to despair and wish that they had died in Egypt. Their pessimism and fear were so great that the Holy One wished to destroy them, and once again Moses had to intervene on their behalf.

There was good reason that President Franklin Roosevelt reassured Americans by telling them the only thing they had to fear was fear itself. The temptation to fear, and to fear the unknown in particular, can be paralyzing. We are wired to give in and give ourselves over to it, and history is full of people who, out of fear, diminished themselves or let themselves be set aside for fear of their true self coming forth.

Pride offers us the opportunity to belatedly celebrate those who would or could not let themselves be celebrated in their own time, for fear of making their true identity known widely. Like Caleb in our Torah portion, they fought for the good even though those around them gave into the fear that bubbled up inside of them.

People like Fredy Hirsch, a German-Jewish athlete who was a teacher and youth movement leader. He protected Jewish children throughout Germany and Czechoslovakia, in part due to his German heritage and ability to placate Nazi officials. But his story was not widely told, in part because he was gay.

While Fredy was growing up in Germany, Eva Kotchever had moved from Poland to New York. There, she founded Eve Adams’ Tea Room (Eve’s Hangout), which in 1925 was one of the first lesbian bars in the US. After a police raid in 1926 – one not unlike the raid on Stonewall four decades later – Eva was arrested, and since she was not native born she was deported back to Europe. She died in Auschwitz on December 19, 1943.

Stories like Fredy’s and Eva’s, or Bayard Rustin’s, who organized the 1963 March on Washington but demurred from public acknowledgment because he was openly gay, each demonstrate the sometimes tragic power of giving in to fear.

Each of us have the capacity to fear and the capacity to act with bravery, the inclination for good and the inclination for bad. The yetzer hatov, inclination for good, and yetzer hara, inclination for bad, struggle with each other to guide us, but ultimately it’s the strength of our minds and souls that set our directions. These stories of bigotry and fear, of violence and destruction tell us that containing our yetzer hara is not easy. We cannot ignore it, we cannot dismiss it, and we ought not presume that it is not powerful enough to destroy. What we can learn, though, from the stories of Harvey, and Eva, and Fredy, and Bayard, and so many others, is that a strong yetzer hatov can overcome our worst inclinations, if only we would let it.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Greg Weisman

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