January 11, 2011
Walk toward freedom
Parashat Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16)
Last month, an 85-year-old Jew from Queens, N.Y., proudly joined other invited guests at the White House as President Obama signed into law the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” paving the way — finally — for gays and lesbians to serve openly in the U.S. armed forces. For Frank Kameny, ousted from service to the military in 1957 for being gay, it’s been a long and winding road to this moment. A decorated veteran who fought in World War II’s Battle of the Bulge, Kameny brought his dismissal to the Supreme Court in 1961 (he lost), led a demonstration at the Pentagon in 1965, and then went on to help found the modern gay liberation movement. For all these reasons, Kameny is rightfully credited with helping to begin the assault on the military’s longstanding opposition to homosexuals serving openly in its ranks, which dates back to 1778.
Kameny was far from the only Jew glad to see the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Because the Senate’s vote on the matter took place on Shabbat, Sen. Joseph Lieberman reportedly walked 90 minutes from his D.C. home to the Senate Chambers to cast his vote for repeal. In the weeks before the vote, an interesting mix of Jewish groups signed a letter to Congress arguing for repeal, including the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith International, the Jewish Labor Committee, the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, the National Council of Jewish Women, the Union for Reform Judaism and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
I, too, joined the ranks of those who advocated and now celebrate the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and yet I’m certain I’m not the only one who is also feeling ambivalent: glad to see another tool of discrimination fall away, yet disinclined to make it easier to send anyone to war.
This week’s Torah portion, Beshalach, opens with what is arguably God’s ambivalence on the subject of war. The most common translations of Exodus 13:17-18 suggest that God made the newly freed Israelites take a longer route through the wilderness, lest they grow fainthearted at the sight of war and lose their newfound desire for freedom: “When Pharaoh let the people [Israel] go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer, for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people round about, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds” (JPS translation). Playing on the ambiguities in the Hebrew (nakham/yinakhem and karov/k’rav), the midrash suggests a different reading: “God was uncomfortable” to send the people toward the warlike Philistines lest they take comfort in battle (based on Exodus Rabbah XX.11-12). Perhaps God detours the Israelites, preventing them from witnessing war, lest they develop blood lust at the sight of it. Perhaps God worried not that the Israelites would be afraid of war, but that they would be inspired to return to Egypt to avenge themselves.
Instead, God takes us deep into the wilderness, giving us wondrous gifts along the way: manna from heaven to nourish our bodies; a miraculously parted sea to nourish our souls; and — next week in Parashat Yitro — the laws needed to shape us into a civil society. In this reading, God steers us away from war — accompanying us in a pillar of warming fire by night and a cooling cloud by day — on a long walk toward freedom, toward peace, however long it might take us to get there.
Now that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has been repealed, may it fall away swiftly, allowing all who would serve our country in this way to do so with honor and integrity. And just as swiftly, may we all finally learn to avoid the shortcuts that too often lead to war, remembering instead that God — with us always — especially encourages us on our paths toward peace. Good company indeed.
Lisa Edwards is rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim (bcc-la.org), a Reform synagogue in West Los Angeles.