February 3 Sermon: Nachshon, Courage and Marriage Equality

This sermon was delivered during services on Friday February 3

It is one of my favorite, if not my all-time favorite, stories from our tradition. Perhaps that’s the reason I love to tell and retell this particular midrash when the Torah portion includes the story that leads up to it. This year, however, the story of Nachshon and the Reed Sea takes on a different level of meaning and urgency for me. For those who may not be familiar with the story let me share it with you.

The text of the portion for this week includes our ancestors finally escaping from Egyptian slavery and making their way to the edge of the Reed Sea. They suddenly discovered they are trapped. In front of them is an expense of water. Behind them and rapidly approaching is the entire Egyptian army. Yes, once again Pharaoh apparently changed his mind. The people begin to panic. Taking his role as leader seriously Moses steps in and… lifts his staff into the air. Yes, that’s his response to help calm his people and solve their dilemma – he puts his hand in the air as if to call on a miracle. Nothing happens. He does so again and, again, and, each time, the same result- nothing happens. Things go from bad to worse. The Egyptians are drawing ever closer, the people are increasingly panicked and Moses continues to wait for divine intervention with a Biblical version of the raise the roof motion.

Nachshon sees this and will have none of it. He takes matters into his own hands and, through his actions, seems to say, “Moses there is a time for prayer and there is a time for action and wisdom is knowing when to choose one over the other.” Nachshon steps into the water and keeps going until he can all but taste salt. And, according to the story, it is at that moment that God, perhaps realizing that his people were finally willing to take action, sends the miracle Moses could only pray for. The sea parts, the people crossed to safety, the Egyptians follow and ultimately are drowned, and, on the other side, the Israelites break into song. Freedom is finally theirs.

Nachshon offers us perhaps the best definition of courage that I can imagine.

Courage is jumping into the unknown because you know that it is the right thing to do. Courage is jumping into the unknown because you know that things need to change. Courage is jumping into the unknown not for your own sake but for the sake others, some known to you and others total strangers.

Yesterday morning I was in the presence of great courage in the most unlikely place– New Jersey State Legislature. It was there that I saw the power of real conviction and the courage of people to turn that conviction into action. Yes, yesterday morning I drove down to Trenton to be one of the people testifying on the behalf of The “Marriage Equality and Religious Exemption Act”– legislation that would create legal marriage for same-sex couples in New Jersey.

A1, as it is called, seeking to undo the unexpected damage caused by the creation of civil unions a few years ago. That provision, while well-intended, unwittingly created a two tier system of citizenship in new jersey. Time and again I heard the negative ways in which it has impacted couples and families. And yesterday was a significant opportunity to undo some of that harm.
As you would expect, the room where testimony took place was not monolithic. There was some, for want of a better word, ugliness in the room and here is just a taste of it.

Time and again people argued against the law saying that it is “breaking God’s law and that all of us know in our hearts that such equality is wrong and sinful.”

In the same voice they continually said, “There’s the truth and you can’t change the truth. From the beginning of time the bible defined marriage as the relationship between one man and one woman. Period. End of discussion. That’s the truth!!!”

And if there weren’t numerous bailiff’s their to keep us all in line I would have stood up and pointed out that the version of the “word of God” they are likely reading and are relying upon to cast judgement was translated from Hebrew by flawed human beings. I would also have pointed out that there are numerous examples of polygamy in the Bible. Yes, apparently the real truth is that marriage has not always been between one man and one woman. But I suspect such people do not want to be confused by facts.

One rabbi spoke against it and claimed that this form of equality would violate the Torah’s principles. He said that referring to same gender relationships as “marriage” would be akin to “This bill “relabeling a swine a cow and then forcing Jews to eat it.”

And another Rabbi said “Homosexuals” as a whole don’t want marriage equality, only an anti-semitic anti-circumcision subset of activists do.

Yes, there was some ugliness in the room but, fortunately, there was far more courage present.

The day began with members of the New Jersey Assembly addressing the bill. They spoke both beautifully and powerfully.

Assemblyman John Wisnieeski began by saying, “Many of us would be well suited and served by listening to the young people of the state. When I talk to my three teenage daughters their comment to me was “why dad? what’s all the fuss? this is something that’s so simple and common sense. why is there even a debate about it?”

He went on to say, “More than 50 years ago our United States Supreme Court made a decision that separate but equal was not equal.” and this law would undo separate but equal status we unintentionally created by our enacting civil unions.”

And he was quick to add that this law “would also protect religious freedom because no clergy member of any religion authorized performing marriage would be required to conduct any service in violation of their expression of religious practice.

Similarly, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver noted that “…when we think about historical context through civilizations that have existed we know that what was the societal viewpoint at one place in time in history evolved through the centuries as societies examined and adopted different points of view.”
And she noted that separate but equal was, the “message that Jim Crow racial segregation laws sent in this country. It was wrong then and it is just as wrong now.”

I saw courage. Courage as family after family testified. There was the Italian Catholic father who came forward with his son, his son’s partner and their children and said (I am paraphrasing), “When my son first came out I was crushed. I’ve since come to see just how ridiculous I was. Look at me? Look at this beautiful family they have given me.”

And there was the couple with 11 children they had adopted from abusive, drug addicted homes. “I’m Mark.” one of the adults in the family said by way of introduction. “And I’m here with my illegal husband Bob and our 11 children. I want to make my illegal husband Bob my legal husband Bob. That’s why we are here.”

And then it was finally time for Rabbi Faith Joy Dantowitz, Rabbi Joel Abraham and me to testify.

In the hours leading up to it I had heard, time and again that the bill is only supported by the gay and lesbian minority of New Jersey and that people of faith oppose it. As a result I changed my opening comment on the fly and said,

“I’m Dan Cohen and I have served as Rabbi at Temple Sherry Tefilo-Israel a congregation of some 900 households for close to 20 years. I am here today as a straight man and, as we have heard invoked numerous times today, a person of faith because, quite frankly, in 2012 I’m scratching my head trying to figure out why there’s even a question about this to begin with.”

Nachshon knew that breaking away from the past is neither certain nor easy, but that, until someone has the courage to step forward to lead, nothing can change. He saw what needed to be done and did it. Yesterday I was privileged to be in the presence of the kind of courage he embodied. The issue of marriage equality in New Jersey is not simple. Then again, as Assemblyman Wisnieeski’s daughters told him… it should be.


One thought on “February 3 Sermon: Nachshon, Courage and Marriage Equality

  1. Barbara Laub

    Thank you so much for your testimony on this important issue, and for sharing it with us. The name of God and religion are so often hijacked in service to the most reactionary attitudes. I’m grateful that people like you are there to represent the courage and compassion that characterize a faith worthy of our belief. It’s just another reason to feel proud of our wonderful temple and movement!


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