A few years ago, a middle-aged man came into my office, sat down on the couch, and, after a few niceties, poured out his heart.
“Rabbi,” he said, “I’m a believing Christian, active in my church. I’m married to the love of my life, and we have two beautiful teenagers that I love more than life itself.”
After a few words of welcome, I asked, “So why are you meeting with me, a rabbi?”
He paused, holding back tears: “Because I have a problem that I needed to discuss with a person of faith. I am attracted to men. Rabbi, I think I’m gay, and I can’t talk to my pastor about it, nor my friends. And especially not my wife.”
What can I do?”
This unforgettable encounter comes to my mind as we, in the Jewish community, prepare for the holiday of Passover, and especially the Seder, a celebratory meal in which Jews and their guests sit at festive tables to re-tell the miraculous journey of the ancient Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt.
In chapter 2 of the Book of Exodus, the Torah details the Hebrews’ suffering under the weight of Egyptian bondage. Because of their pain, the Hebrews cry out and, in response, “God heard their moaning. God remembered the covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites and took notice of them.”
Interestingly, we learn from these verses that God, the Omnipresent One, heard the Hebrews’ plea only after they made the choice to cry aloud.
One might reasonably ask: Didn’t the Almighty God already know that there was enormous pain being held within their hearts? Wasn’t it obvious?
In all likelihood, yes. But, the Torah comes to teach that God resists intervening in the lives of human beings even when there is difficulty. First, God wants us to state our case. Not only for the sake of God, but, perhaps, even more importantly, for ourselves.
There is an apocryphal story about Nelson Mandela in which he was asked, “After twenty-nine years in prison, when precisely did you know you were free?” His answer: “The first time I spoke out against the oppressor. That was when I knew I was free.”
When I turned back to this courageous man on my couch, I was overcome with compassion. Here was a human being who was struggling mightily with his sexual orientation compounded by the fact that he was a father, a husband, and a faithful Christian who felt unwelcome to share his soul struggles with his own pastor. He was experiencing his own type of slavery, locked in a life that did not reflect who he was at his core.
I wish that I could have offered him advice that would magically make his problems go away. I did what I could by honoring his suffering, reminding him that he was created in the Image of God, and gently encouraging him to be honest with his loved ones. By speaking his truth with me, he had taken the bold first step from slavery to freedom. Still, he was in for a long, complicated journey that could only continue with words delivered from his own lips.
I never encountered this man again. I do not know what he chose to do next, if he shared his secret with his family or perhaps began a conversation with his minister.
What I do know is that the Passover story began when an imprisoned people decided to give voice to their suffering. I also know that the Exodus concluded with a vision of the Promised Land.
I pray that he makes it to the Promised Land, too.
— Rabbi Eric M. Solomon is the rabbi at Beth Meyer Synagogue in Raleigh, N.C.