Consequences Beyond Comprehension: What Parashat Bechukotai Teaches Us about LGBTQ+ Allyship

June 1, 2024

By Jaimie Krass, Director of Youth Programs

This d’var Torah was original shared with Temple Emanu-El, in Providence, RI, on June 1, 2024 as part of their Pride Shabbat celebrations.

This parsha is…a lot.

We get nine verses of extraordinary, over-the-top, immeasurable blessings.

And then we get over twenty verses of curses, ranging from devastating natural events and pestilence, to famine, to what seems like cannibalism.

Some of these curses feel quite reminiscent of our people’s lived history. And maybe of some of our present circumstances. But what I’d love to draw your attention to is that first word.

“If,” אִם — It’s quite rare for a parsha to begin with this word. And our Sages noticed that. In the Babylonian Talmud, תנו רבנן, our sages taught that אִם־בְּחֻקֹּתַ֖י תֵּלֵ֑כוּ אין אם אלא לשון תחנונים —“If” here is language of supplication, of pleading. G-d is hoping, begging us to live in the ways of Torah. And that word appears seven more times in this chapter about blessings and curses.

Why would G-d, an omnipotent being, beg us to do or not do something?

Because while these blessings and curses are awesome and terrible on a cosmic scale — they each can only come about as a result of our actions. The choice is ours; the catalyst for any of this is us. The power that we are being warned about in this parsha is NOT G-d’s — it’s ours.

Our actions are so powerful, that G-d is pleading with us to be mindful of them, to do the right thing. Because their impact can be beyond comprehension. Our actions can have awesome and terrible consequences.

I think about the impact of our actions a lot in my work at Keshet and as a Jewish lesbian. When one is bombarded with messaging from birth on from every single angle claiming, “you don’t know who you are, you’re wrong, you’re supposed to be this way, not that way,” and then still, somehow, manages to listen to the small voice inside saying “you know who you are,” — when that happens, one becomes endowed with a heightened awareness of just how significant the impact of a singular seemingly innocuous word or action can be.

When I think back to my own childhood and the things others, especially adults, did and said around me that made me feel isolated, and unseen, as a queer person, I’m confident that the majority of them were not acting from a place of malicious intent. I think most of them weren’t even fully aware of what they were saying and doing, or how it was impacting me. And so, how could they know that the consequence was that, at the age of 12, I started to struggle with thoughts of suicide?

 Our actions can have awesome and terrible consequences.

That was over 20 years ago. And I am, thank G-d, in a much better place. But that experience was not unique to me, and it was not unique to the early 2000s.

I’d like to share some of the most important learnings from a national survey of LGBTQ+ youth mental health, the most comprehensive of its kind, with over 30,000 youth participating.

In 2023:

  • 41% of LGBTQ+ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year (2023), including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth.
  • 54% of LGBTQ+ young people reported experiencing symptoms of depression.
  • 67% of LGBTQ+ youth reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety.
  • 56% of LGBTQ+ young people who wanted mental health care in the past year were not able to get it.

To be clear, LGBTQ+ youth [and adults] “are not inherently prone to mental health challenges and suicide risk because of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” Dr. DeChants says. “Rather, they are often placed at higher risk because of how they are mistreated and stigmatized in society.”

So I don’t imagine any of us will be surprised by those statistics I just shared when we consider that:

  • Nearly 1 in 3 LGBTQ+ youth said their mental health was poor most of the time or always due to anti-LGBTQ policies and legislation;
  • 60% of LGBTQ+ youth said that someone attempted to convince them to change their sexual orientation or gender identity;
  • 75% of transgender youth report that they feel unsafe at school;
  • And only 38% of LGBTQ+ youth reported that their home is affirming.

These are terrible consequences of human action. A curse, we might even say.

But before we allow this to weigh us down and paralyze us, I want to remind everyone that — just as we learn in Bechukotai — we also have the power to bring about blessing.

Because the surveys also teach us that LGBTQ+ youth who reported having at least one affirming adult in their lives were 40% less likely to report a suicide attempt.

For transgender and nonbinary youth specifically, having one affirming adult in their lives who uses the correct name and pronouns reduces their risk of attempting suicide by over 56%.

One adult. This is a sanctuary full of affirming adults. Can you even comprehend the power you hold?

Let’s take up the charge. When it comes to LGBTQ+ belonging, what actions is G-d begging us to take?

At Keshet, we believe one of them is Shmirat haLashon: Guarding of one’s language.

A teaching from one of our proverbs seems to perfectly encapsulate the importance of this.

מָ֣וֶת וְ֭חַיִּים בְּיַד־לָשׁ֑וֹן

Death and life are in the power of the tongue.

Words can hurt or heal. And when it comes to using language in a way that fosters LGBTQ+ belonging, there are a few practices we can adopt. One is to be aware of when we are unnecessarily using gendered language: friends, y’all, folks, chevre, distinguished guests, instead of “boys and girls,” “ladies and gentlemen.”

This mindfulness can also inform how we navigate pronouns. When we look at someone, our minds can feel tempted to engage in a process in which we take in bits of data about their appearance, mannerisms, style, and then our minds, using the systems we have internalized based on our socialization, try to assign or “guess” their gender. We call this process gender attribution. And the problem with this is that these assumptions cannot be assumed to be accurate, and indeed, can cause a lot of harm when they are inaccurate. Because gender identity is not something that can be externally determined: it is a person’s inner self-knowledge and understanding of the gender(s) with which they identify. It’s something you know in your kishkes. Not something, someone can tell you.

So when it comes to pronouns, the best practice is to model sharing our own first, because that communicates we are a safe person who understands that gender identities are manifold and diverse. But we don’t require others to share: not everyone feels comfortable or safe doing that. But we’re opening an opportunity for them.

And when we’re referring to someone else, and we don’t know their pronouns, we can commit to consciously doing what most of us already do subconsciously: “Someone left their yad over here.”

And when we do make a mistake, rather than over-apologizing — “I’m so sorry, I promise I’m a good ally, this stuff is just really hard and it feels like everything is changing all the time” — which makes the apology about us, and not the person we’ve misgendered, instead we can say “I’m sorry, I meant to say she,” and then move on.

Another action we can take is one you are all doing right now.

Our Sages teach us that תלמוד גדול שהתלמוד מביא לידי מעשה

Study is greater (than action) because study leads to action: we all must commit to life-long learning, to educating ourselves on LGBTQ+ identities and experiences, so that we can be stronger allies. So, keep coming to Pride Shabbat! Keep googling terms. Check out Keshet’s resources. Study, and learn, so that you can act.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly: V’ahavta l’raeicha kamocha – Love your neighbor as yourself– I know we often spend a lot of time focusing on the “l’raeicha” part, but I invite us to focus on kamocha. “As yourself.”

All this work becomes easier when we love ourselves. When we love ourselves, when we know and advocate for the respect we deserve ourselves, we become more attuned to what others around us need in order to love themselves, and to feel loved by us.

We will make mistakes. And our mistakes may cause harm. But this parsha also reminds us why we cannot allow ourselves to be defeated by that possibility.

At the end of this exhaustive list of curses, when it’s hard to imagine there being any recourse or way out of the darkness, G-d supplies a key reminder. “Yet, even then, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or spurn them so as to destroy them, breaking My covenant with them: for I am their God. And I will remember my covenant with their ancestors.”

In other words, it is always worth it to keep trying. The benefit of doing so will never disappear, and is beyond comprehension.

I’d love to close with a very brief story.

Edgar is a trans 16-year-old from Florid who attended his first Keshet Shabbaton last year. He was so excited, he practically dove off of the bus. He enthusiastically participated in every activity, and it felt like every time I looked in his direction, he was talking to someone new, making the most out of every second.

Later on that first night, one of my staff came up to me and told me there was a participant having a hard time and in need of some support. They brought me to the participant and it was Edgar. He was crying, and having a hard time catching his breath, almost hyperventilating. I walked him outside to get some fresh air, and we took some calming breaths together.

When he could speak, he said through his tears, “I’m sorry. I just didn’t know that I could feel this happy.”

When we adults try our hardest, and keep trying, for the young LGBTQ+ people in our lives, the benefits are beyond comprehension.