Build Sanctuaries With Our Lives: On the Pulse Gay Nightclub Massacre

Pulse vigil

Photo by John Raoux/AP

Build Sanctuaries With Our Lives
Parashat Naso, June 18, 2016
First Narayever Congregation – Gay Pride Month

We are talking this week about sanctuaries. Creating sanctuaries. Building them. Staffing them. Bringing offerings to furnish and decorate them. Consecrating them. Blessing them. And hearing God’s voice in them.

First we count the Levites tasked with carrying the Ohel Moed, the portable sanctuary, through the desert on the way to the promised land. These are the ones that help make sure we’re always heading in the right direction, toward freedom, toward a better place, and that we’re taking with us all our holy things, not forgetting where we’ve come from, even taking the broken tablets with us – our injuries, our broken places, our losses.

Toward the end of the Torah portion, we hear about Moshe finally finishing setting up and dedicating the mishkan, and all the tribes bringing beautiful offerings toward this communal sanctuary. bringing of themselves. And of course, we hear the Priestly Blessing, given by God to Aaron with which to bless the people; and we hear how Moshe would speak with God and hear God’s voice from the Ark.

We encounter many different kinds of sanctuaries around us. There is of course this sanctuary, our religious space in which to focus on matters of the spirit, on prayer, on song, and community. We speak of offering sanctuary to those in need, to refugees, to those being pursued. Sanctuary as resting place. Even a sanctuary for animals, who are then protected.

Sanctuary means feeling something holy, connecting with others, feeling safety, understanding, and protection.

Last weekend, as you all know by now, the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida was attacked by a gunman bent on doing violence to LGBTQ people. In so many forums, I saw that for the LGBTQ community, Pulse and other gay bars and nightclubs are not just bars and nightclubs. They are safety, understanding, protecting, holiness, and community.

As Richard Kim wrote in the Nation this week,

Gay bars are more than just licensed establishments where homosexuals pay to drink. Gay bars are therapy for people who can’t afford therapy; temples for people who lost their religion, or whose religion lost them; vacations for people who can’t go on vacation; homes for folk without families; sanctuaries against aggression. They take sound and fabric and flesh from the ordinary world, and under cover of darkness and the influence of alcohol or drugs, transform it all into something that scrapes up against utopia.

Or as Michael Barbaro wrote in the New York Times,

To fully grasp the unique horror of what happened inside Pulse — a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., that became the site of the worst mass shooting in America — you have to understand the outsize role that gay bars play in the history, lives and imagination of gay people.

They are refuges and havens, places where, the moment you cross the threshold, there is an unspoken understanding: You will feel accepted and safe.

Last weekend’s attack was not simply an attack against the LGBTQ community. It was an attack against one of the community’s sanctuaries, violence in one of the few places in which those of us who are LGBTQ can feel safe and free to be who we are.

This is pride month here in Toronto, which has suddenly become a different kind of statement. For any group that has been the target of hatred and violence, pride in yourself is about so many things. Jews know this. Queers know this. Jewish queers know this. Pride means: I celebrate the ways in which I am different from those around me, and yet I affirm that I am human and connected with those around me. I am proud of who I am and I am not going to hide who I am, whether to protect myself or to make other more comfortable in their majority status. I am sometimes scared. Yet to hide, to retreat, would be a small death in and of itself, and so instead I fight for a society that is safe for me and for all kinds of people.

In any crime targeting a minority simply for their identity, Jewish people must feel called upon to speak, to support, and bear witness. We know this pain well. We know that one aggression unchecked can become a horrifying turn in history. And we must join in solidarity with other communities, which are usually overlapping communities, in grief and in a will to fight oppression and hatred.

This week’s Torah portion Naso also includes the priestly blessing. God gives it to Moses, to give to Aaron, for the priests to bless the people with it. Now, of course, the majority of times this blessing is heard in Jewish life is not by Cohanim, and not even by service leaders. Rather, instead of primarily belonging to the few holy leaders, we ourselves, anyone, gives this blessing to our children.

Our Jewish tradition says: we are now the priests. We are able to bless and receive blessing. And perhaps even, we ourselves are sanctuary.

An old Shaker hymn that has entered Jewish circles goes like this:
“Oh Lord prepare me to be a sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true, and with thanksgiving I’ll be a living, Sanctuary for you.

And Jewish circles have added
Va’asu li mikdash v’shachanti bitocham” – Make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among you.

This Shabbat, which in Toronto is Pride Shabbat in many communities, let’s ask ourselves: How do we make our lives ones of sanctuary? How do we dedicate ourselves to creating safety for those among us who find ourselves to be targets of hatred or violence? How do we count ourselves in, or rededicate our efforts, not just in our minds but in our actions, to ensuring a society where all are safe from deadly sinat chinam, senseless hatred?

The LGBTQ community is no stranger to carrying its losses on its backs. But we must have the faith that as we carry them, we are moving ever forward toward freedom, toward a better place, toward the promised land.

Finally, there have been so many numbers this week. Counting people lost. In recognizing the largest mass shooting in American history, let’s remember the victims are not numbers but people, with stories, loves, families.

From Psalm 147:

Harofeh lishvurei lev u’michabesh l’atzvotam.
Moneh mispar lakochavim, l’chulam sheimot yikra.

.הָרוֹפֵא לִשְׁבוּרֵי לֵב וּמְחַבֵּשׁ לְעַצְּבוֹתָם
.מוֹנֶה מִסְפָּר לַכּוֹכָבִים לְכֻלָּם שֵׁמוֹת יִקְרָא

God is the healer of the broken hearted, the binder up of their wounds.
God counts the number of the stars, and to each calls them by name.

Special thanks to Leora Abelson, Bryan Mann, and the Alumni of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College for their thoughtful discussion and ideas on this subject.


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