Turning Curses into Blessings

Written by Rabbi Elliott Karstadt — 22 May 2022

This week, something really remarkable happened in the world of football. It was not Spurs overtaking Arsenal in the league – although that was pretty miraculous. It was the coming out of Blackpool player, Jake Daniels, who became the first professional player to be openly gay in 30 years. To put that in context, that means that between well before my bar mitzvah and Chloe’s bat mitzvah, there have been no role models for young gay men in the footballing world. Daniels has received support and praise from many within the FA and beyond.

Anita Asante is a former international woman footballer. Writing in the Guardian this week, she reflected that the women’s game has worked hard to be inclusive and accepting of diversity, not simply because it is the right thing to do, but because giving space for people to be the best they can be means getting the best out of them as sportspeople too. How many footballers have failed to reach their potential on the pitch because they were unable to be in public what they knew themselves to be inside?

In coming out, Daniels said: ‘For a long time I’ve thought I would have to hide my truth because I wanted to be, and now I am, a professional footballer. I asked myself if I should wait until I’ve retired to come out. No other player in the professional game here is out. However, I knew that would lead to a long time of lying and not being able to be myself or lead the life that I want to.’

Speaking on the BBC, Gary Lineker said: ‘He’s going down a path that many, many others will follow – they’ve probably just been waiting to see how it pans out for whoever’s first.’ It often takes that brave individual to step out and make a stand, before others will feel safe to follow.

I think of the figure of Nachshon ben Aminadav. We all know the story of the Red Sea, through which the Israelites passed on their way out of Egypt (if you haven’t go and see The Prince of Egypt – the film not the musical) – and usually the story is that Moses stood on the shore of the sea, raised his staff, and the sea parted. But the rabbis of the Midrash tell a different story – one that required the Israelites not simply to have faith, but to show that faith in a physical way. The way they tell the story, the people were standing at the shore of the sea – with the Egyptian army behind them remember – unsure what to do, unsure who should go first into the treacherous water. As they debated, one man, Nachshon ben Aminadav, waded into the water. The water got to his waste, and nothing happened – it got to his shoulders, and nothing happened – it was not until the water was in his mouth that the sea finally parted and the Israelites were able to cross the sea.

It took an act of faith to pass through the sea. But not just faith – bravery, and the knowledge that no one else was going to do it. Nachshon realised that if he did not step forward in that moment, no one would. Regardless of his faith that God would eventually part the waves, stepping out was still a huge risk – because faith can be deceptive.

The risk that Jake Daniels took this week was greeted positively by the media, and he has received messages of support from many of those at the top of the English game, including England captain, Harry Kane. But, inevitably there have been those who were not so encouraging – in the same way that Nachshon choked on the water before the sea parted.

In the Progressive Jewish world, we had our own Nachshons – Rabbi Lionel Blue and Rabbi Shiela Shulman are two who come to mind. Both were teachers of a previous generation of rabbinic students and I never had the privilege to learn under them. They inspired those who followed to be more open about their sexuality. But it was not always easy to be that trail blazer – the one to stick their heads above the parapet. While things may be easier for gay and lesbian Jewish clergy now, it has not always been so.

This is perhaps the challenge of our Torah portion: to take something that might otherwise be a curse – that actually was a curse – and to turn it into a blessing.

In our haftarah this morning we read: ‘I, the Eternal, probe the heart, search the mind – to repay every person according to their ways, with the proper fruit of their deeds.’ This verse from Jeremiah is one that speaks to the heart of Progressive Judaism. A Progressive Judaism that begins with the individual – that demands that we think of the needs of the person in front of us before we dictate action or identity. That each person is on their own path, their own journey, that difference and diversity is good – that we need every individual to be true to themselves, and to feel able to be true to themselves as part of our community.

This openness is not automatic and easy. It is something we as individuals and as a community must continue to work on. So, I invite us this Shabbat, to reflect on what it means to be a Nachshon – what it means to step out into the breach and to lead the way where others have not been before. And to reflect on how we ensure that Reform Judaism continues to be a place in which all are accepted for who they are – how we create a community of blessing rather than a community of curses. And where there are curses, how can we turn them into blessings.