I’ve been thinking a lot about tents lately. All different kinds of tents.
One of the primary values of Kol Haneshamah is, and has been since its inception, to be an Open Tent for those Jews and our families and our friends and allies who are searching for a safe and welcoming and affirming place to call their Jewish home. A place where those who have historically not felt safe or welcomed or affirmed or celebrated can be who they are, fully, without any need to censor or hide parts of themselves. Whether that is because they, we, are gay or lesbian, bi-sexual or transgender, queer or gender non-conforming; whether that is because we fell in love and chose to marry and build a life and home and family with someone who is not Jewish; whether that is because we think differently about Judaism, the Jewish People, or G-d or the world, and what our place is in that world.
An open tent is, by definition, open to all.
And so, I’ve been thinking a lot about tents, about how they function, and what they do, and what they have symbolized within our People’s long history.
The first tent that came to my mind was one that I was sitting in, on the banks of the Tatshenshini River in Alaska, in the summer of 1991. To celebrate my ordination, I gave myself the gift of a 10-day rafting trip with the Sierra Club along the Tatshenshini River. I was not a seasoned camper; in fact, I had only camped a few times, before this trip. A friend had lent me her tent, and assured me that she had waterproofed it beforehand. That night, I discovered that she hadn’t. I sat in that tent as the water poured down, hard, all night long. As I balanced on the flimsy foam sleeping pad, and pulled my sleeping bag around me as close as possible, I prayed that the water which by then had begun to puddle at the bottom of the tent would not reach me or worse, wash me away in a flash flood.
Well, obviously, I survived that night, but I learned how important it is to have a safe and secure tent, one that can provide refuge, and shelter you from life’s storms. Such a tent is well worth the investment.
The next tent that came to my mind was the one that Abraham and Sarah were said to have dwelt in when they were first journeying across the desert. A midrash, or legend, teaches that the tent was wide open on all sides—in order to be welcoming to guests. Another midrash says that Abraham and Sarah considered the duty of hospitality more important than the duty of receiving the Shechina—G-d’s divine presence.
It is Abraham and Sarah’s tent that we often recall when we stand under a chuppah, a wedding canopy, a kind of temporary tent, or home for the couple. Standing under the chuppah, as they think of the home and family that they will establish together, a wedding couple is reminded of the importance of a core Jewish value: hachnassat orchim, hospitality.
As I thought about Abraham and Sarah’s tent, and then about the chuppah, I thought about the many, many chuppot, or wedding canopies, that I’ve had the privilege to stand under with couples over the 25+ years that I’ve been a rabbi. Standing under those chuppot were many couples in which one person was Jewish, and one person was not, as well as many couples who were of the same gender. From before I was ordained, when I was still a student, I believed that it was important to welcome people to Judaism, rather than to keep them out. So from the beginning I performed interfaith marriages, even when I was among a small handful of rabbis to do so. From the beginning, I also always performed same sex weddings. Doing so was part of how I understood the need to provide an open tent, long before my life intersected with those of you whose vision of creating an open tent drew you to form this wonderful congregation called Kol Haneshamah.
I remember, as if it were yesterday, the first same sex wedding I conducted–in 1994. It took place on the Faculty Glade at UC Berkeley. It was a glorious day. The two brides stood in the middle, one in a white dress, one in a white tux: both truly radiant. They were surrounded by many people who loved and supported them. But not by everyone whom they loved. I found in my files the words I said to them that day: “As you stand under this chuppah, symbolic of the home that you will establish together, you are surrounded by the warmth and love of many of your family and your friends–those who will continue to give you love and support, encouragement and guidance as you journey through your life together. There are also those, I know, who were not able to be present today. There are those who are no longer a part of this world. . . . There are also those who were unable or chose not to be present with you . . . . I know that it is your hope and your prayer, and mine as well, that they will, at some point in the not too distant future, be able to be present in the life you have chosen for yourselves, and will be able to give you their love and their support, and their blessing, as well.”
How wonderful, how right, it is that finally, 23 years later, all couples in this country who wish to formalize their relationship through marriage can now legally do so. How proud I am to know that I played a small role in helping to bring that about, particularly in what I did as a member of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, when we worked to influence the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the national body of Reform Rabbis, to affirm the right of Reform rabbis to sanctify same sex unions beneath the wedding canopy. How proud we should all be in knowing that Kol Haneshamah played a role, through many of our members’ hard work on Referendum 74, to make the State of Washington the seventh state in the nation to legalize gay marriage, helping to lead the way to the day when all states would be required to do so.
How far we have come. And yes, how far we still have to go.
As I thought back on that wedding in 1994, I realized that in order for a chuppah to truly be a sacred space, the couple needs to know that those standing around them fully honor their dignity, fully honor who they are at their deepest, most authentic selves—which includes, of course, honoring the choice of who they love and who they choose to marry.
I began to wonder: what is it that makes any space a sacred one?And that led me to think about the Tent of Meeting, the Ohel Moed, that the Torah says accompanied our ancestors as they journeyed through the desert, as we read in this week’s Torah portion, Naso. I thought about the many different groups or clans, each of which had its own special role in carrying the various parts of the Tent as they journeyed from one site to another. The Gershonites, who carried the cloths that served as the coverings, and the screen, and the hangings; the Merarites, who were responsible for carrying the planks, the bars, the posts, and the sockets, the pegs and cords; and the Kohatites, who were designated to care for the most sacred objects.
And that made me think back to Parashat Vayakel, in the Book of Exodus, when G-d first begins to tell the People of this project that they will undertake together. G-d tells them to bring gifts, every person whose heart is moved should bring their gifts to help build this . . . .this—well, the People really had no idea what it was going to be. But they listened and without knowing what exactly it would be, they somehow trusted something Bigger than themselves, and they came, bringing their gifts, and their skills, and their expertise to build the Tent of Meeting. As it says over and over again: everyone whose spirit moved them, men and women, each with their particular skills—came forward to build the Ark, and the Eternal Light, and the coverings for the wall and for the tables, and they donated their precious gold and their silver not only so that it would be beautiful, but also so that it would be solid and something they could be proud of. With such a generosity of spirit they brought forth everything that was needed so that they could pray together and learn together and mourn and celebrate together as a community.
And then I thought about the verse in the beginning of Parashat Vayakel, a verse that is perhaps one of the most beautiful verses in the Torah. In the midst of telling the people what they are supposed to bring, suddenly, G-d seems to interrupt G-d’s self. It’s right there in between the tanned ram skins and the dolphin skins and the acacia wood and the oil for lighting, and the lapis lazuli, right there where it doesn’t make sense for it to be, but it is.
“Vasu li mikdash, v’sha’chanti b’tocham.” And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.”
G-d says to make a sanctuary where G-d might dwell, because . . . well maybe because G-d knew that that was exactly what they would be doing, even if they didn’t realize it at the time, or even if some of them might have thought they were just building a great big ol’ Tent. G-d knew they’d be building a sacred place where the presence of G-d, the Holy, could dwell among them.
And so, that led me to think about this Tent of Meeting, this sacred place called Kol Haneshamah, that Rabbi Michael and a small group of founding members first gave birth to 13 years ago. I thought about all of the leaders and members and friends, and Rabbi Anson and Sheila Abrahams and many other talented teachers and staff members, I thought about all those who helped to build it with their, with your, with our hard work, and dedication, and skill, and commitment, and generosity of spirit.
And vision for what it could be.
Friends for the past 13 years you, we, have been building a sacred place where members and friends and those still on the fringes of the community could pray together and learn together and mourn together and celebrate as a community. For the past six years, I’ve been privileged to be a part of that effort. The presence of G-d does indeed dwell here—not up on some high throne behind a purple curtain, but in the in-between spaces: in the special relationships that have been formed between people, in the holy moments that have been shared watching babies be born, children grow up and gain skills and confidence as responsible and thoughtful Jewish adults, as we’ve witnessed individuals find love and marry and yes, as we’ve supported those whose relationships came to an end; as we’ve stood next to other members of our community, as they buried their loved one—extending our hand to help support them as they put a shovel-ful of dirt into the grave. And so many more in between spaces, too numerous to possibly name.
Friends, this Sacred Tent that we’ve been building for 13 years is not done; in fact, G-d willing, it will never be done. There is yet more for us to do—as a community—to make it even better, even more of a placed filled with sparks of holiness—in many spaces in between. There are ways, as we move into the adult phase of our life as a community, that we can grow in our understanding of what it means to be a kehillah kedosha—a holy community, that we can draw on the riches of our Tradition, even as we seek ways to help that Tradition evolve and be more responsive to the needs of those living today. There are yet ways that we can deepen and strengthen our relationships with one another, that we can treat each other with even greater kavod, dignity and honor, and ways that we can more effectively work together to bring about greater tikkun, healing and repair, in this world.
What a wonderful opportunity we have before us, to continue to build this special community together.
May our special and sacred community go from strength to strength, as it grows into its adult years. Mazel Tov to us all.