Gei’im BaVillage – LGBT Outreach
Gei’im ba-Village (Hebrew for both “gays in the village” and “proud of the village”) is a program intended to provide LGBT-focused programming at Town & Village Synagogue that openly welcomes LGBT Jews to practice and celebrate their Judaism with us.
Below is the D’var Torah for Parshat Balak, presented on Pride Shabbat (June 22) by one of our congregants, David Pasteelnick. We hope you enjoy and are inspired to join us sometime.
[There will be more postings here on upcoming events shortly.]
“Because of the success of the Israelites in defeating the tribes they encounter as they travel through the desert, the chieftain/king Balak reaches out to the shaman/seer/wizard Balaam to curse the Jewish people. The parshat contains all kinds of elements including a talking donkey, an angel with a flaming sword, animal sacrifice, all culminating with the famous blessing מַה טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל
How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!
I chose to focus instead on a lesser known blessing featured in the text:
לֹא הִבִּיט אָוֶן בְּיַעֲקֹב וְלֹא רָאָה עָמָל בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהָיו עִמּוֹ
(G-d) does not look at evil in Jacob, and has seen no perversity in Israel; the Lord, G-d, is with them.
First of all, how is this a blessing? It seems to be a statement. But if we scratch beneath the surface and look at the words in a slightly different angle, the blessing is that G-d does indeed acknowledge that evil exists within our community. However, G-d overlooks these shortcomings and continually provides us with an opportunity to mend the error of our ways. G-d sees and believes that the Jewish people can transcend our baser instincts. We have that potential because the Divine soul, a piece of G-d, perhaps that thing we call the Pintele Yid, resides within each of us.
So we have a blessing that says that while our community may not be perfect, through the divine act of love we are given space to be better; that our improvement is constant, desired, and approved. It is part of the divine plan.
I want to now zero in on the word עָמָל that is featured in the blessing, which is translated to mean “perversity.” Rashi has stated that עָמָל connotes a transgression by one who “conceives mischief.” So what are we actually talking about when we refer to “perversity” in this context? To me it seems to denote a deliberate act to cause harm or to do wrong.
While people or society can perceive perversity in others, through the lens of established societal or social norms, and characterize a person or group as “perverse” simply for whom they are, this doesn’t seem to be what we are talking about. The text here refers to those whose actions are meant to impact others; an active transgression, rather than a passive characteristic. With this interpretation in place, we can posit that in acknowledging the vast diversity of the Jewish people, in all their varieties of observance, identities, and relationships, this is not what we are talking about when we characterize behavior as perverse. It doesn’t factor in at all. If G-d is overlooking anything, it is about how we treat others.
Now, a major theme of the parshat is how an intent to curse becomes a blessing. However, this can work both ways: we can take a curse and make it a blessing, or we can take a blessing and twist it into a curse. There are those who would take the quote:
(G-d) does not look at evil in Jacob, and has seen no perversity in Israel;
and use – in my opinion – the incorrect passive and subjective definition of perversity to exclude people from being a part of the nation of Israel. G-d has seen no perversity in Israel could be misconstrued to say that those who are part of the LGBT community are perverse – by their identity, how they live, and who they love we deem them perverse – so they are not a part of Israel. G-d looks at Israel. There can be no perversity in it because that is not in G-d’s vision. So therefore LGBT individuals cannot belong. This interpretation could be used to curse, or ostracize, an entire demographic; to say “you are not part of us.”
Or, we can take (G-d) does not look at evil in Jacob, and has seen no perversity in Israel; and make it a true blessing. We can believe that G-d, in looking at the totality of the Jewish people, in all our diverse magnificence, in the mosaic of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, etc., in the generational quilt of observant and non-observant and every gradation in-between, in the various shades and hues of interracial and interfaith families, and – as a friend of mine would say – in the sparkly fabulousness of the LGBT Jewish contingent, in all of this G-d sees no evil, no perversity, no active mischief here.
The Lord, G-d is with us. He gives us room. There is room for all of us.
This is the first Pride Shabbat at T&V. In hosting this, in opening your hearts and minds and homes to those of us who have been a part of this congregation for years; in continuing to grow as a welcoming and inclusive community, you have given us room to envision, propose, and then make this event a joyous and marvelous reality. This Pride Shabbat in many ways is about those of us in the LGBT community expressing our pride in this particular aspect of our identity without shame or fear. But it is also about those of us in the LGBT community expressing our pride at belonging to such an exceptional congregation. Thank you for making room. Shabbat Shalom.”