By David Waksberg, CEO Jewish LearningWorks
“I have a dream,” Martin Luther King declared fifty years ago before a quarter-million people gathered on the Washington Mall. Those who watched the news on our black & white TVs knew the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was all about racial equality, or its absence, in our country. The March addressed changing laws to advance equality. The March and King’s speech also influenced the way others in this country saw people of color, and how they saw themselves.
The contemporary corollary to the civil rights movement of those days is the push for equal rights regardless of sexual orientation. It is LGBT Pride Month, with LGBT Pride Shabbatot and other events occurring throughout our community, and organizations like Keshet and A Wider Bridge working to advance LGBT inclusion in Jewish life.
In last week’s Torah portion, Balak, king of Moab, fears the Israelites and commissions a prophet, Balaam, to curse them. When Balaam finally sees the Israelites, he does not curse them; instead he blesses them. “How fine are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel,” he famously pronounces. “Blessed are they who bless you,” he concludes, “and cursed are they who curse you.”
Balaam was hired to curse people he didn’t know. It is easier to demonize people you have not met. When he was able to actually see them – really see them, and see their humanity – he could not help but bless them.
Did you ever have a pre-conceived notion about someone and have that image turned upside down upon actually meeting them? Who knows how long it would have taken me to overcome my own homophobia if two of my best friends in high school had not come out as gay?
Vision plays an important role in Balaam’s story. At first, Balaam’s vision is impaired – he cannot see an angel that is visible even to his donkey. Perhaps God’s role was to enable Balaam to see beyond the stereotypes, myths, and fears he was fed and to see the Israelites for who they truly were – deserving of blessing. Perhaps that is God’s role with us still.
The focus of the March on Washington in 1963 was on the REST of America –a call to change our perspectives. Soon thereafter, much focus in the African-American community shifted inward. “Black is Beautiful” advanced pride in who you were – regardless of the state of white racism.
Growing up, I related to “Black is Beautiful” as a Jew; it helped me focus less on external anti-Semitism and more on my own Jewish pride. Pride, as opposed to shame – that emotion that so perniciously embeds itself into the hearts and minds of the oppressed (and seems so absent among the oppressors).
LGBT Pride Month is very much about Pride as opposed to shame. I’ve noticed that at some synagogues, the mere existence of an LGBT Pride Shabbat has inspired LGBT teens to participate with pride in their synagogue. It helps them feel whole and wholly included in their community.
We can celebrate this week’s legal victory for marriage rights for the historic landmark that it is. What must accompany the march for legal equality is the change within our hearts and minds – the change that occurred in Balaam - to see one another, and ourselves, not as stereotypes, but B’tzelem Elohim (in the image of God).
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