I rarely give social action sermons. Like, almost never. But, partly due to being inspired by colleagues and by the experience of Brickner…not to mention that I felt compelled to do so this week, due to the instruction at the start of the parashah to speak and due to goings on in the world. The death of Maurice Sendak profoundly moved me. The horrible vote in North Carolina profoundly angered me. And President Obama’s words gave me a profound feeling of pride.
I rarely post my sermons. But this sermon felt different, perhaps because it was different. And perhaps because I realize, if I’m following the Torah’s compulsion to speak, I feel that I’d be remiss if didn’t use this aspect of my voice, as well.
I rarely post on Shabbat. But if I don’t want this message to wait. And I’m afraid I’ll lose my nerve to post it if I wait. And I want to give an opportunity for a bit of Shabbat learning on the weekly portion for those of you who read this on Shabbat…and for it to be there to read motzei Shabbat for those of you who don’t.
Here is what I preached this evening:
That very night in Max’s room a forest grew
And grew until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around
And an ocean tumbled by with a private boat for Max and he sailed off through night and day.
And in and out of weeks and almost over a year to where the wild things are.
And when he came to the pace where the wild things are thy roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws
Till Max said, “BE STILL.” And tamed them with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once and they were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all.
And made him king of all wild things.
I’d venture a guess that most of us have heard that story before, and upon learning of Maurice Sendak’s death this week, were filled with memories of the images from his illustrations, as well as visions of wild rumpuses of our own imaginations. And the story is one which is as true and powerful now as it was when each of us first heard it. That was, perhaps, Sendak’s greatest gift—to write tales that are as fun as they are memorable—and full of depth.
Joseph Campbell once said of this scene in Where the Wild Things are, that it was one of the greatest moments in literature, because it depicted such a powerful truth:
“That is a great moment because it’s only when a man tames his own demons that he becomes the king of himself if not of the world.”
Indeed, we all have demons, monsters, that scare us—until we realize that it is in our own hands to tame them. Some of these monsters—these fears—are real, while others are imagined, and yet others perceived—those things that seem to be scary to us, but in fact are not frightening at all.
Sendak’s monsters were, by the way, based on real people—his own family in fact. Having immigrated before the Shoah, his family—especially his relatives who would come to visit—scared him and his siblings. They were different. They looked funny and sounded funny. As he once described:
And they’d pick you up and hug you and kiss you, “Aggghh. Oh, we could eat you up.”
And we know they would eat anything, anything. And so, they’re the wild things. And when I remember them, the discussion with my brother and sister, how we laughed about these people who we of course grew up to love very much, I decided to render them as the wild things, my aunts and my uncles and my cousins.
These figures, so scary in his childhood, were ones he grew to love.
I’ve always found it interesting that Max in the story does not conquer the monsters, he does not fight the monsters. He instead tames them. And becomes friends with them. And eventually leaves them—not running in fear, but waving goodbye, I always imagined out of a certain sense of love.
We often hear about conquering our inner demons; but the message here is different—and is a distinction that I think is important. Some monsters turn out to be not so scary once you get to know them. Once you face them—and get to know them—they become no longer scary. The trick, then, is to know what our monsters are—and consider whether they are as scary as they seem—and face them—not to fight them, but perhaps to understand them, and to come to peace with them.
This, I believe, is the great message of this story: many of our fears are those of perception and, when faced, becomes things that are not only not scary, but are, in fact, ideas—or people—that we can embrace.
But, so often, these fears are not faced and tamed, but instead grow—and become prejudice and hatred. As the Jewish people, this is certainly something that we have come to know throughout our people’s history. At the very heart of our sacred myth is the story of our own enslavement—which began as a result of Pharaoh’s fear of us. And again and again, we’ve faced prejudice and hatred. It is likely because of our own communal history, that we are a people with such a deep sense of compassion for others. Because of our own experience, we have fought again and again for civil rights when others are being threatened because of who they are. And, indeed, we continue to fight for civil rights today, most recently as it relates to legal rights based on sexual orientation.
Let me be clear, the issue of marriage equality is a civil rights issue. Some day, when generations look back, they will have trouble understanding how it was possible that 2 people of the same gender couldn’t marry each other, in the same way that we look back at the time in our nation’s history when 2 people of different races couldn’t marry each other. Some day, when these battles are far behind us, we will look back and be saddened that there were states that voted to prevent the rights of individuals to get married to the partner of their choosing, in the same way that we’re saddened to know that our country once had Jim Crow laws. But we’re not there, yet. And there are still fears that exist that have not yet been faced—not yet been tamed.
There are those that fear that allowing 2 men or 2 women to get married will threaten the very institution of marriage. That allowing them to do so will break down the fabric of society. That families with 2 dads or 2 moms in them are somehow dangerous. My friend and colleague, Rabbi Michael Latz, who is raising 2 beautiful daughters with his partner, commented this week, …
the “religious” right is making glbt families out to be monsters to be feared…The reality is that most of us are too busy doing our laundry, schlepping carpool, making school lunches, arranging playdates, and working on homework with our kids to be all that scary.
Indeed, these are just parents who are trying to raise their kids. They are, in reality, not monsters at all. And while those that oppose their right to be a family often do so in the name of religion, it is exactly because of my own religious conviction that I support that right.
In fact, the biblical prohibitions on acts of homosexuality are not about marriage. The famed verse in Leviticus 18: Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman,” is not talking about a loving, committed relationship. In fact, the word translated most often as “to lie with” could be accurately translated as “to bed.” The idea of such a relationship existing between 2 men or 2 women simply didn’t exist at the time. And, indeed, it is the value of the verse in Levticus 19: Love your neighbor as yourself, that is at the heart of our religion. We are to love our neighbor—even if he or she lives differently than we do—even if they look different—even if they are other—even if they first appear to be as monsters.
This idea is underscored in this week’s Torah portion, Emor, when we read in Leviticus 23: And when your reap the harvest of your and, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger. This mitzvah, this sacred obligation, is clearly not just about the literal harvest, and is as much of a commandment for those of us not living in an agricultural society. But I believe that the obligation extends further, beyond setting aside a portion of what we receive in order to give to the poor and the stranger, beyond the physical to the conceptual. All of what we have should also be made available to those in need. The rights that we have, as human beings, as citizens, should extend to all. Including those who seem strange to us. Including the right marry any individual that a person chooses to marry.
This week’s portion begins with God telling Moses: Emor. Speak. On the surface, a simple command. But one which may be far more difficult than it might seem, if we remember that Moses was slow of speech. But one which can be difficult for any of us to follow for any number of reasons. But one which is of vital importance.
This week, President Obama rose above his own hesitation and declared, in no uncertain terms, “I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.” The political ramifications of his statement remain to be seen. And I think his motivation in choosing to make this statement now is not as important as the fact that he made the statement, becoming the first President in our nation to offer this message in such clear terms. President Obama used his voice—he used his position—to make an important statement about not restricting the rights of some individuals in this country.
I believe that this command, this obligation, carries to us, as well. We must speak. We must make our voices heard. We must continue our people’s tradition of fighting for civil rights—for standing up for the stranger. For helping those who do not yet have that which any of us have, to be able to attain it. And to use our voices, as well, to quell the baseless fears that lead to such iniquities and which lead to prejudice. We must use our voices to tell the stories, the stories which speak of profound truths—both those which we’ve seen with our own eyes, and those which we’ve seen with our mind’s eye.
“Now stop!” Max said and sent the wild things off to bed without their supper. And Max the king of all wild things was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.
Then all around from far away across the world he smelled good things to eat so he gave up being king of where the wild things are….
And sailed back over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day
And into the night of his very own room where he found his supper waiting for him.
And it was still hot.
So may it be for all. May we soon live in a world where everyone who wants to, can go home to the place where someone loves them best of all.
Ken y’hi ratzon.