Parashat Vaera: Into Life

Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Jay Michaelson looks to LGBT Jewish liberation as a demonstration of Judaism’s fundamental commitment to life.

Parashat Vaera. Creative Commons/Peter Pearson

Creative Commons/Peter Pearson

The exodus from Egypt has symbolized the movement from servitude to freedom for generations. Whether for African-American slaves or for our own gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender elders, the story resonates far beyond its Israelite particularity to any struggle for liberation.

There is another aspect to yetziat mitzraim (the Exodus from Egypt), though, beyond the move from bondage to freedom. After all, as many Jewish scholars have noted, freedom is the beginning of the Israelite quest, not the end of it. The parting of the Red Sea is a cinematic moment, but it is not the climactic one: the real point of the story comes at Mount Sinai. Egypt is the womb, and the Red Sea is the birth canal — but it is at Sinai where our people comes of age and begins its forty-year adolescence. (Only upon entering the land of Israel can it be said to have attained adulthood.)

So if freedom is only the beginning, what is it that comes next?

The traditional Jewish answer usually has something to do with responsibility, covenant, and the monotheistic imperative to ethical and religious life. These are, of course, borne out by the content of the Torah’s texts, which soon will shift attention from history to law. But Egypt, too, had its laws. The Egyptians also had a sense of responsibility to, and covenant with, their Creators, and, though quite different from ours, a code of ethics and ritual behavior. They even had their own toevot — their own taboos — some of which are recorded in the Torah.