In this week’s Torah reading in Numbers Chapter 20 (see below), the Israelites asked their distant relatives, the Edomites, for safe passage through their territory. Beginning with the phrase, “Thus says your brother, Israel,” they assured the people of Edom that they would offer compensation for any resources they might use if needed. They pledged to remain on the main road so as not to disturb community life. The Edomites said no, necessitating for the children of Israel a much longer journey to the land of Canaan.
The Torah teaches us to be welcoming. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, insists that congregations greet and treat visitors and members with audacious hospitality. Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, agrees with that approach, having created a “Big Tent Judaism” coalition as a way of reminding us that we are part of one community that needs to find reasons to allow people into our circle rather than keeping them out.
This week, the United States Supreme Court rendered decisions that rejected the Edomite approach of inhospitality and accepted perspectives that will open the circles of our society.
They decided that someone might discriminate against a potential buyer for a house even if that wasn’t their intention. Sometimes, attitudes are so ingrained that people act or speak without thinking, realizing only later that what they did or said caused hurt and closed a circle that could have been kept open.
The Supreme Court’s majority affirmed today that Americans who have been trying for so long to win the right to get married and have their marriages recognized by the government are doing so out of love and out of respect for marriage. The Central Conference of America Rabbis declared today, “As Jews, we believe we are all formed in God’s image. This compels us to extend and recognize the same rights to everyone in our community, including individuals who identify as straight, gay, lesbian, or transgender. For many years, Reform rabbis have called for equal rights for all members of our communities, and we see today’s Supreme Court decision on marriage equality as a huge moral victory for the United States.”
Even more important, the majority opinion of the Supreme Court, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, ended with this poignant declaration: “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than they once were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, 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, exclude from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
When the Westboro Baptist Church began regular picketing of local houses of worship and businesses in my former community in Kansas, it was clear that they were equal opportunity haters. They embodied in many ways the perspective of the Edomites, not by blocking anyone’s passage, but by making sure that people who walked by them saw their disgusting signs and heard their vile song parodies that portrayed everyone but themselves as evil. In considering my response to them back then, I knew that they used specific Biblical passages, interpreted through their own particular lens, to support their position. I believe that the Tanakh mostly reflects an openness that strongly reaffirms the notion that all people are created in the divine image. Isaiah Chapter 56 (see below) has given us the memorable statement, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” It reaches that point in the passage by declaring that what is important is what we do. If we follow God’s teachings, keep the Sabbath, do what is right, and act with justice, God’s love will encompass us, no matter what. Isaiah 56 specifically referred to foreigners and eunuchs, who might easily have been left out of the circle of societal acceptance. 20 years ago, I realized the importance of that passage for the struggle for marriage equality and for the fight to end discrimination against anyone in housing, employment, or in their very existence and presence in a community.
The murders at Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, arson attacks on churches in Charlotte, North Carolina and Tabgha, Israel, and the attacks today by the Islamic State, make it all the more crucial to revisit Isaiah’s words. We will do it musically tonight, but they are also there for you to read and consider. We will do right and act with justice when we bring everyone into our circle and teach them what it means to truly be brothers, sisters and neighbors. May we show hospitality, acceptance and love to all who come our way.
House of Prayer (L. Karol - June 24, 2015)
Based on Isaiah 56:1,5, 7, Psalm 24:3, Psalm 15:2
"House of Prayer" on You Tube
When we do what’s right, when we act with justice
When we pray for peace, Your deliverance will come
In our hearts and our hands is the power of salvation
When we raise up one another to a higher place, to a higher place
Va-haveeo-teem el har kodsheeוַֽהֲבִֽיאוֹתִ֞ים אֶל־הַ֣ר קָדְשִׁ֗י
V’seemach-teem b’vayt t’feelatee וְשִׂמַּחְתִּים֙ בְּבֵ֣ית תְּפִלָּתִ֔י
Ki vaytee Bayt t’feelah yikah-ray כִּ֣י בֵיתִ֔י בֵּית־תְּפִלָּ֥ה יִקָּרֵ֖א
L’chol Ha-amim לְכָל־הָעַמִּֽים:
[I will bring them to My sacred mount and let them rejoice in My house of prayer
For My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples]
Bring your joy, bring your hopes
Share your stories and your worries
You will find comfort when you enter this house of prayer
It doesn’t matter who you are or if you feel forsaken
You will be welcome in this house for everyone, for everyone
Who will climb this mountain? Who will stand in this holy space?
Walk with courage, speak the truth!
We will remember you, we will remember you!
You will be welcome in this house for everyone, for everyone
Numbers Chapter 20
 From Kadesh, Moses sent messengers to the king of Edom: "Thus says your brother Israel: You know all the hardships that have befallen us;  that our ancestors went down to Egypt, that we dwelt in Egypt a long time, and that the Egyptians dealt harshly with us and our ancestors.  We cried to the Eternal One, who heard our plea and sent a messenger who freed us from Egypt. Now we are in Kadesh, the town on the border of your territory.  Allow us, then, to cross your country. We will not pass through fields or vineyards, and we will not drink water from wells. We will follow the king's highway, turning off neither to the right nor to the left until we have crossed your territory."  But Edom answered him, "You shall not pass through us, else we will go out against you with the sword."  "We will keep to the beaten track," the Israelites said to them, "and if we or our cattle drink your water, we will pay for it. We ask only for passage on foot-it is but a small matter."  But they replied, "You shall not pass through!" And Edom went out against them in heavy force, strongly armed.  So Edom would not let Israel cross their territory, and Israel turned away from them.
Isaiah Chapter 56
 Thus said the Eternal One: Observe what is right and do what is just; for soon My salvation shall come, and My deliverance be revealed.  Happy is the one who does this; the one who holds fast to it: who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it and stays his/her hand from doing any evil.  Let not the foreigner say, who has attached himself/herself to the Eternal One, “The Eternal will keep me apart from God’s people; and let not the eunuch say, “I am a withered tree.”  For thus said the Eternal One: “As for the eunuchs who keep My sabbaths, who have chosen what I desire and hold fast to My covenant-- I will give them, in My House, and within My walls, a monument and a name (YAD VASHEM), better than sons or daughters. I will give them an everlasting name which shall not perish.  As for the foreigners who attach themselves to the Eternal One, to minister to God, and to love the name of the Eternal, to be God’s servants--all who keep the sabbath and do not profane it, and who hold fast to My covenant--  I will bring them to My sacred mount and let them rejoice in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices shall be welcome on My altar; for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”