Life at the Margins: Shavuot and the Queer Experience

A lovely Shavuot drash by my friend and colleague Rabbi Josh Lesser, of Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta – a Reconstructionist community founded by gays and lesbians:

What queer person cannot relate to Naomi’s fate at one time or another? Feeling lonely, without family, without support and without a clear picture of the future – surely many of us remember a time like that. If we are lucky like Naomi, that reality changes. When she encourages her daughters-in-law to return to a more certain future with security and promise one daughter-in-law, Ruth, stays and pledges an oath of fidelity inextricably binding her life to Naomi’s forever, giving us one of the Torah’s most poignant examples of a family of choice. Her pledge is so complete that some people question if there was more than a mother-daughter bond, but rather that of a life partner. Indeed many people, lesbians and straight folk alike, use Ruth’s pledge as part of their life-long commitment to each other. The text does not answer what their relationship is, but the question itself is important and allows us to wonder. To me, the even more powerful message is that through this pledge, the future changes, a future that will eventually lead to the messianic age.

This transformation is the most queer part of the text. It is this pledge of mutuality and shared destiny in the face of the unknown that enables what is clearly a path of despair and hopelessness to be transformed so powerfully that it produces the seed of the messianic line. Through a series of events, some even say through God’s hand, Ruth meets Boaz, a kinsman of Naomi. He admires her dedication to Naomi and offers them support and comfort. Eventually, Boaz decides to join their family of choice from which an offspring emerges beginning the Davidic messianic line. Here we see that God can be powerfully known and experienced through a relationship. If that is not a revelation as profound as Torah, I do not know what is. It is often through selfless giving that God is known as powerfully as if the earth was shaking and thundering. Even more revealing for queer folks is that this relationship occurred in the margins. The central elements of this story take place in Moab, a questionable place at the time, and in the fields – a place of danger and transition. The central players are likewise marginal: widows, older people and strangers. And yet, here in the margins, godliness manifests. Ruth is a testament to everyone that God’s presence resides in those places society shuns or pities.

Yizkor and the Rhythms of Remembrance

As we do every year, JRC just observed a Yizkor (“Memorial”) service to mark the end of the Pesach holiday. This particular year, I introduced our memorial prayers by saying that mourning itself is something of an open-ended journey – and one that rarely unfolds in a predictable manner. I also pointed out that more recent research in the psychology of grief tends to reject the linear “Stages of Grief” approach made famous by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross.

From a recent piece in The New Yorker:

Though Kübler-Ross captured the range of emotions that mourners experience, new research suggests that grief and mourning don’t follow a checklist; they’re complicated and untidy processes, less like a progression of stages and more like an ongoing process—sometimes one that never fully ends.

I do believe that the notion of grief as an “ongoing process” is at the heart of the Yizkor memorial observance. It often feels to me that there is a powerful rhythm to the practice of saying memorial prayers during major four festivals of the year (Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot). Since each festival has its own unique spiritual themes, the process of ongoing Yizkor observance drives home the truth that grief is a cyclical – rather than linear – experience

Here is my own take on how this process resonates through the Jewish holiday season:

Yizkor of Yom Kippur – “Dwelling in the In-Between:” the Day of Atonement is, if you will, the spiritually rawest time of the Jewish calendar. It is the time in which we acknoweldge our mortality and look into the coming year with a potent emotional mix of awe and trepidation. The tenor of Yizkor for Yom Kippur thus resonates with the pain and uncertainty that inevitably comes with grief. In the juncture between a year past and a year yet to come, we allow ourselves to dwell in that “in-between place” between the past we know and the future we have yet to experience.

Yizkor of Sukkot/Shemini Atzeret – “Preparing for Winter:” Immediately after the harvest festival of Sukkot comes the observance of Shemini Atzeret, which marks the beginning of the rainy season in Israel. Our Yizkor prayers are recited during our preparation for winter – the season in which we construct the necessary protection and defenses for these cold, dark months. Yizkor for Sukkot/Shemini Atzeret honors these defenses – as well as the spiritual work we know we must do in order to make it through the long nights ahead.

Yizkor of Pesach – “Inevitability of Life Renewed:” On Passover we begin to see the green shoots of new life sprouting up from the previously hard, fallow earth. The natural world around us testifies to the inevitability of liberation – and we come to understand that this rebirth is indeed woven into the very fabric of creation. So too, with our own lives as we walk the path of the mourner: the Yizkor of Pesach comes to remind us that there is life after grief as surely as Spring follows Winter.

Yizkor of Shavuot – “Celebrating the Fruits of our Labor:” On Shavuot, we bring in the harvest. As Spring moves in to full bloom, we now begin to reap what we’ve sown. We now affirm that all of the hard work (and bereavement is nothing if not hard work) does indeed pay off if we do it in a spirit of openness and love. On this Yizkor, we celebrate the fruits of our labors – and rededicate ourselves to the journey ahead.

It’s a shame that the observance of Yizkor tends to be falling off among liberal Jews. I truly believe there is great spiritual resonance in these rituals – which cycle outward over the seasons and throughout the years. Even for those who are not traditionally observant Jews, there is real meaning to be found in these rhythms of remembrance.

The next Yizkor will occur in several weeks, on Shavuot. (May you reap a bountiful harvest…)