One of the people up for an Emmy for lead actor this year is Billy Porter for his role in the television show pose. Who here has seen this television show? I hadn’t heard of it before my housemates started watching it when quarantine started.
Pose is about New York City's undergroun LGBTQ ballroom culture in the late 1980s and early 1990 during the HIV epidemic. Many of the characters in the show face rejection from their families and then on top of that are living with HIV. Many of them are also African American and Latino so they are also dealing with racism. It is a very dark period, but the dance culture provides some comfort, some community, and some hope amidst despair.
As you might imagine, this show is very popular right now. The themes of dealing with the realities of widespread illness, the need to address a society taht still marginalizes LGBTQ people and people of color ring very close to home. But so does the need for hope, community, and comfort that the characters on the show find through their community.
This morning, I was listening to a podcast featuring one of the lead actors, Billy Porter, who has been nominated for an Emmy for his performance in Pose. At this point in his career, he is very successful, but in the interview, he described how it took a long time for him to get there. From a young age, he was told over and over again that he was not “masculine” enough.
“When I started coming to New York in the late '80s and trying to be in the business, you know, there was no context for someone who looked like me, you know?” he said.
It felt like he had nowhere to go.
In this parasha, Ki Teitze, we also encounter a character who is deemed to have no future: the afamed ben sorer u moreh, the wayward and rebellious son.
Reading this section of the Torah on its face value is incredibly painful. We read about how this child is deemed a glutton and a drunk. He is brought before the elders of the city and is stoned to death.
The Talmud says that the reason for this unimaginably harsh punishment for a child is because he is being judged
עַל שֵׁם סוֹפוֹ
On what his future will be
“in the end he will squander his fathers property and seeking in vain for the pleasures to which he has been accustomed, he will take his stand on the crossroads and rob people, and in some way or other make, himself liable to the death penalty. Says the Torah, “Let him die innocent of such crimes, and let him not die guilty of them” ‘
Reading this text, we see are given a portrait of an individual with no hope of a positive future.
It was reading this section of the Torah that made me glad that I am a rabbinic Jew, that I believe in interpretation of the Torah over time, that I don’t follow Judaism that says that we follow what the Torah says on face value.
Eventually, the Talmud will basically legislate this category of individual out of existence.
בן סורר ומורה לא היה ולא עתיד להיות
The Ben sorer u’moreh never was and never will be.
Now you have to remember how drastic of a move this is. The rabbis are literally legislating away a law from the Torah.
For us, this might seem obvious. We are much more comfortable saying that the Torah is ancient and that we do not follow the laws exactly the way they are portrayed but this is foundational to what the rabbinic Judaism has become.
And here’s what I think it means:
It means that the rabbis decided that there should never be a person whose future is prejudged for them as irreparable. That we must always find a way through to hope.
We must always find a way forward, we must not make assumptions about the way that a person’s life will go, and if a future doesn’t seem possible, we must make it possible.
For Billy Porter, this was coming up against a culture where he was not allowed to not appear masculine and struggled and struggled to find roles where he could be himself.
In the podcast Billy Porter says, “What this experience with "Pose" has done for me is taught me to dream the impossible, to take my own glass ceiling off of my dreams and dream the stuff that I can't even see yet.”
Some of us may be facing personal senses of futurelessness right now, maybe some feel like they have to do with identity, some are just with the immense amounts of obstacles put in our way by the pandemic. We as a community need these things too.
But the story of the Rabbis and the Wayward Son tells us that we too need creative audacity and moral willpower
Billy Porter in the interview says, “The practice I believe is to learn to take off our own “glass ceilings”, to allow ourselves to dream big dreams, to feel hopeful about a future that is not yet entirely visible.”
Now, as a black effeminite gay man, when he says this, i know he does not mean that “you can do anything you want”
But in his TV show, Pose, he creates a community for people who were judged to not fit into society, a place for them to express themselves, a place to connect, a place to find solace from the stress of plagued communities and social isolation.
We, like the Israelites, are in a time of wilderness and obstacles abound.
In the time of Elul, as the high holidays draw near, the sense of an unknown future looms larger.
But we are not helpless and we are not dream-less. Let us not judge the future based on our perceptions of its ending. Let us come together and continue to imagine what might be possible and let us build it together.
In the book of Isaiah, God says,
הִנְנִ֨י עֹשֶׂ֤ה חֲדָשָׁה֙ עַתָּ֣ה תִצְמָ֔ח הֲל֖וֹא תֵֽדָע֑וּהָ אַ֣ף אָשִׂ֤ים בַּמִּדְבָּר֙ דֶּ֔רֶךְ בִּֽישִׁמ֖וֹן נְהָרֽוֹת׃
I am about to do something new; Even now it shall come to pass, Suddenly you shall perceive it: I will make a road through the wilderness And rivers in the desert.
As we struggle through this wilderness together, I pray that we are blessed with God’s readiness to try new things and with the Rabbi’s audacity and moral leadership.
When I have free time, I will study.
How many of you have said this to yourself?
This is a line from Pirke Avot, a book of rabbinic teachings in the Mishna from the year 200.
It actually is phrased as if predicting that people will say this.
וְאַל תֹּאמַר לִכְשֶׁאִפָּנֶה אֶשְׁנֶה, שֶׁמָּא לֹא תִפָּנֶה:
A pretty spot on prediction. 2000 years later, we are still dealing with procrastination. I saw this article in the New Yorker entitled “What type of procrastinator are you?” and here were the options:
There are lots of reasons we might avoid doing something that is good for us. The rabbinic tradition, unlike the New Yorker, though don’t go into the psychology as to why. Rather, they offer a solution: make a fixed time for your studies.
I love the fixed study opportunities we have in our community as a congregation:
Limuds on Fridays at 5:30PM and Sundays at 5PM
Parsha study for adults on Thursdays at 7:30PM
Parsha study for kids on Sundays at 10AM
Having personal study practices is also important and many people in our congregation have them. Debbie Steinig takes part in the practice of Daf Yomi, learning some Talmud every day. I have a couple friends that I study the Torah portion with and that I am also studying a section of Talmud with.
Having a regular schedule, our tradition teaches us, makes it more likely to get done.
I think this is why there is such an emphasis on regular prayer. Even in communities that people don’t pray three times a day, or even once a day, there is still a weekly service.
This is the heartbreak that we feel of not being able to meet together at our normal times right now. Our structure is disrupted. We have tried to do the best we can at building a new structure and while it hasn’t worked perfectly, since the pandemic we have met every friday night and every saturday night. We have done a pretty fabulous job of keeping our prayer schedule fixed.
But what does any of this have to do with our Torah portion?
In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Re’eh, we learn about a few mitzvot related to the Levite. The levite is a special category of person because they, by definition cannot own land. They do receive other structural benefits in society, but they are ultimately dependent on the rest of the people to provide their food, just like strangers orphans and widows who also didn’t own land.
In one law, the people are told to separate out a portion of their crop to be eaten during the festivals. Once out of every three years, though, that separated out section is not meant for festivals but rather is to be left in your settlements.
Then the Levite, who has no hereditary portion as you have, and the stranger, the orphan, and the widow in your settlements shall come and eat their fill, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the enterprises you undertake.
This might look like it’s about the giving tzedakah in modern terms but in combination with a different mitzvot in this parsha, I think it is also about action.
We read that God requires that the landowners must not just celebrate but most also celebrate with their households:
וּשְׂמַחְתֶּ֗ם לִפְנֵי֮ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶם֒ אַתֶּ֗ם וּבְנֵיכֶם֙ וּבְנֹ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם וְעַבְדֵיכֶ֖ם וְאַמְהֹתֵיכֶ֑ם וְהַלֵּוִי֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּשַֽׁעֲרֵיכֶ֔ם כִּ֣י אֵ֥ין ל֛וֹ חֵ֥לֶק וְנַחֲלָ֖ה אִתְּכֶֽם׃
you shall rejoice before the LORD your God with your sons and daughters and with your male and female slaves, along with the Levite in your settlements, for he has no land inheritance; his land inheritance is with you.
I think for us, the obligation is beyond just giving food. It is about rejoicing together, building community together.
I believe the message for us today is that social action is not just about giving money but also about action.
And our social action initiatives need to be just as fixed our prayer and just as fixed as our study.
Perhaps that is in part a personal project for you. I care a lot about addressing injustice in the prison system. I actually signed up to be a penpal for someone who is serving a life sentence in prison. I plan to take half an hour every month before coordinating committee meetings to write my letter. I invite anybody who wants to to join me. That is one way that I am structuring justice work into my life in a way that feels manageable.
At points, we as a community have been great at this—volunteering at Real Food Farms, at Dee’s Place. But it’s time for us to establish our next step, to come together to work on an issue together, to form a new volunteer routine together as a community. Perhaps we should work together on a Get Out The Vote campaign before the election in November. Perhaps we should get behind Jews United For Justice’s campaign for police accountability. Perhaps we should commit to fighting food insecurity in Baltimore.
I cannot decide what this should be for us. We need to figure it out together. So I’m creating space for us to come together and identify what is important to us and what a reasonable sized fixed commitment might be for each of us.
So I conclude by asking: how should we structure justice work into the life of our community so that it is not just something we say we do but that we know we do because it is a part of our lives in a concrete, fixed, ongoing way?
And what is your part in making that happen?
Whether you are a classic procrastinator, a justifying procrastinator, or a meta procrastinator, this is not something we can wait on any longer. But we cannot wait until we have free time.
שֶׁמָּא לֹא תִפָּנֶה
Perhaps we will not have free time.
Rory Katz is the rabbi of Chevrei Tzedek Congregation in Baltimore. She was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in May 2019.