Unlike last week, the double Torah portion we’re presented with this week can feel a bit contradictory. In parashat Achrei Mot, we have the descriptions of the scapegoat used for Yom Kippur and of the numerous forbidden sexual relations. This is then immediately followed by parashat Kedoshim, made famous by God’s command to the Israelite people to be holy and the various ways to go about acting holy. Our reading this week begins with all the ways people are less than perfect and finishes with a command to become more than our missteps. We begin with harsh reality and end with inspired hope.
This theme echoes the themes of Jewish history and identity. No, not “they came, we fought, we won, let’s eat.” Rather, the theme around which our Passover seder is arranged, “matchil big’noot um’sayeim b’shevach,” “begin in shame and conclude in praise” (Mishnah Pesachim 10:4). Even now as we are counting the days of the Omer, the period of time between Passover and Shavuot, the theme rings true as we measure the days and transition between slavery and revelation. The duality of the Jewish condition, so succinctly summarized, can be a struggle to live with. On one side of the coin, we are no different than anyone else. We go through truly difficult, even traumatic, experiences. We are susceptible to our baser instincts – giving in to self-important urges and exploitation. On the other side, we are unique and special. Either by intention or circumstance, we are set apart and we use our unique position to do good, make good, and recognize good for others. We live in both scarcity and abundance and travel the fine line dividing them with regularity.
What a frame for the times we live in today. At any given moment we hear stories of fear and stories worthy of celebration on the news and in our communities. We have reasons to become despondent and reasons to become inspired. We see hope in our future and struggle with the nature of the present. Amid COVID-19 the entire world seems to be beginning with shame and concluding in praise, walking the fine line between Achrei Mot and Kedoshim.
How much more this applies to the individuals and families that were expecting nothing but praise? Celebrations and moments of meaning were planned. Joy was expected and suddenly put on pause. How many baby namings, B’nai Mitzvah, weddings, graduations, birthdays, and more were put on hold? How many more will be delayed before we find our way back to praise? How many more weeks spent in isolation will lead to another week of delayed celebration? How hard it is to stay positive, even when we know we’re doing the right thing?
For me, this challenge is made even more acute noticing what else was supposed to happen this Shabbat. Acknowledging our usual summer schedule, we chose to have a Pride Shabbat earlier than the rest of our country. And what goes together better than LGBTQ Pride and an appreciation of the holiness in each and every one of us? But, alas, the state of the world and public health have led to another celebration of identity and expression deferred.
Like the Jewish community, the LGBTQ community and those who live at its intersection, know what it means to journey and live in the delicate and sacred space between shame and praise. They, too, know what it is to wander between subjugation and revelation. Our two communities, those who live in and are allies for both, and our histories bring us closer with mutual understanding and respect. Easy and safe are not words usually used to describe our communities. But despite beginning in difficulty, we manage to find and create important moments of celebration.
As we continue to tell the story of the Jewish journey and look forward to being able to celebrate the LGBTQ community within and around our own, we know that neither of these stories is complete without the difficulties and struggles. We know that these stories are not yet complete and reside solely in joy. We especially know that were we to not give thanks, praise, and acknowledgment to those difficult paths we would not be doing our celebrations justice.
I long for and look forward to the day that delayed praise becomes only joy and gladness, the day that bittersweet celebration, is just sweet. But in the meantime, know that this week we recognize and reemphasize the duality in Judaism, in COVID-19 life, and in celebrating the LGBTQ Pride. Though each of these stories seems to be ensconced in struggle, our narrative tells us that each day we get closer and closer to praise.