Rabbi Karen Citrin
July 3, 2015
“How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.” (Numbers 24:5) We just heard these words chanted from the Torah scroll. Let’s take a moment to go back a bit in the story.
Near the end of forty years in the wilderness, the children of Israel were marching towards the land of Canaan. They wanted to follow the major road that led through the country of Moab. Balak, the king of Moab, didn’t want some 600,000 tribal people walking through his country. So he hired Bilam, a prophet of sorts, to stop the families of Israel with a curse.
Bilam rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey. He headed off towards his mission. But, he was stopped along the way. Three times God put an invisible angel with a sword in front of the donkey and drove it off the road. Each time Bilam fell off and picked himself up.
God then made the donkey talk to Bilam. The donkey said, “Listen, you have been riding me for years. I have never acted like this before. Turn around and look.” It was then that Bilam saw the angel. And the angel told him, “Don’t say anything that God doesn’t tell you to say.”
When Bilam came to the mountain overlooking the Israelite camp, he was ready to curse them. But something amazing happened. His words changed in his mouth. His eyes opened wider and his vision became clearer. He looked out at the tents and got ready to say a curse, but his words came out instead as a blessing. “Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishkenotecha Yisrael.” “How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.”
It is no wonder that the rabbis chose this blessing to say when we first enter the synagogue each morning. Why? Because they when they thought of synagogues, they envisioned tents. The first prayer houses were undoubtedly tents. Picture it: a tent has an open door that implies “come in,” you can enter from all sides, it provides protection and shelter, is a gathering place, it has a strong center, is durable, it is a place of rest, a place for family; tents are the image of warm, welcoming hospitality. (Based on The Spirituality of Welcoming, Dr. Ron Wolfson)
Much like the chuppah, the Jewish wedding canopy. I want to acknowledge tonight, on this 4th of July weekend, the monumental opening of our marriage tents here in America this past week. One week ago, we all stood witness to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision which determined the right under the Fourteenth Amendment for two individuals of the same sex to marry. Marriage equality is now the law of our land. How good it is to be part of this profound moment in history, in the long fight for equality of all Americans. On our nation’s 239th birthday, we harken to the words of our founding fathers, who based their beliefs in the bible, that all are endowed with the unalienable rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (U.S. Declaration of Independence)
Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion affirmed these values last Friday when he said, “…In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. …marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law…” (U.S. Supreme Court Obergefell v. Hodges, Justice Anthony Kennedy, June 26, 2015).
What was affirmed last Friday is what Judaism, and especially Reform Judaism, has long affirmed. While some religious leaders, and especially many here in Oklahoma, have deplored the decision as an affront to God (see Tulsa World’s “The God Blog”), it is important to hear loud and clear the voices of many other religious leaders in our nation. The Central Conference of American Rabbis declared the Supreme Court’s decision a huge moral victory for the United States. The CCAR has long advocated for equal rights for gay men and lesbians. As Jews, we uphold the biblical value that “all human beings are created in God’s image” (Gen 1:27), and the biblical command “justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deut 16:20). Last March, the CCAR installed its first openly gay president, Rabbi Denise Eger. “This is a day for rejoicing as the highest court in the land has recognized the basic humanity of lesbian and gay couples with this decision,” said Rabbi Eger. “Many rabbis have worked tirelessly for this day – but we won’t rest until there is full equality for the LGBT community in all areas.” (CCAR: Supreme Court Decision One Step Toward Recognizing We Are All Made in God’s Image, June 26, 2015)
As we all look ahead to our nation’s 240th birthday, we will need to open our eyes wider to injustices that still remain. The struggle for equality goes on. In many states, members of the LGBT community are still at risk of losing their jobs for their sexual orientation, lack protection from physical violence, or are denied access to essential components of companionship such as rights to hospital visits with ill spouses.
And we know that the struggle for racial justice and equality is being fought daily on the streets of cities all across America. We need to continue to build an America where people of all colors can live, work, and pray in peace.
In the words of Rabbi Steven Fox, the Chief Executive of the CCAR, “In these fights, too, Reform rabbis (Jews) will be on the side of those who struggle for equality, as we have long been. Our faith demands nothing less of us.” (Gay Marriage Violates Rules? Not True. Commentary by Rabbi Steven A. Fox and Rabbi Hara Person)
On this patriotic Shabbat, let us then follow in the footsteps of Bilam, opening our eyes wider and seeing with clearer vision, so that all our tents may be filled with love and blessing.