If we were sitting inside a synagogue today, one of the stories we would hear would be when Sarah ordered Abraham to “cast out” Hagar and Ishmael to the desert. To cast out, tashlich. Many a queer person knows what it means to be cast out of their families; when those who presumably know us most deeply turned their backs on us. My beloved and I each experienced versions of that, when we were each young lesbians in the beginning of the 1980s. Thankfully, over the last 30 years more and more families, including our own, have made teshuvah (repentance) for acting out of fear instead of love.
Today, however, there are those who would like families to again, cast out their queer, trans and nonbinary youth. In the last year there have been 300 anti-queer and trans bills in 23 states; 13 of those states have signed their bills into law. This rhetoric has led to more families, again, casting out their kids. Indeed, over the past year in this country there were over 4.2 million youth who are either homeless or have instable housing; of those 40% are queer and trans youth.
In our country’s current divisiveness, it is no longer just queer and trans youth who have been cast out, as we are also witnessing the reversal of laws over bodily autonomy and reproductive health. Neighbor and family being encouraged to report on – to cast out – women who seek abortions or parents who get there trans kids the medical support they need to affirm their genders. It makes folks worry what other rights might be taken away. More and more, political schisms have fractured families – parent from child, siblings from other siblings… with the youngest generation frustrated that none of the adults seem to be making true inroads in protecting our fragile planet… and wonder what kind of world they are inheriting.
We’re not immune here in Oregon, as we’ve watched communities to our south ban any signs which promote the welfare of black and queer youth in their schools. And even the centrist candidate for governor has accused the democratic candidate of “Bringing the culture wars to your kid’s classroom,” as if children with queer parents or who are themselves queer, trans or nonbinary are not already subjected to the culture of prejudice. And both centrist and conservative candidates want to roll back environmental protections to make possible more logging and more industrial pollution, placing profit above the common good and the health of our planet.
While each of the candidates bemoan the homeless crisis, governments cannot change the systemic nature of this crisis when every attempt to create safe alternatives (for those who our capitalist society has left behind) is met with “Not in my backyard!” We have turned those who lost their housing (to the real estate collapse or the covid job market or simply because greed has made affordable low income housing a myth) into the Other. We turn away, hoping to not see ourselves in their eyes.
We on the left have not helped matters when we boil everything down to tropes about the right’s lack of intelligence and compassion. “If they only got educated about the issues”…. we say. But we have not educated ourselves about how the powers that be fan the flames of division; media conglomerates spinning different realities depending on where their viewers call home. We have forgotten how to have civic discourse, let alone civil and compassionate conversations. I was recently reminded of an image from the animated movie, Wall-E where all the people were glued to their screens, oblivious to the living breathing people within arm’s reach. It no longer feels so far-fetched.
How did we get here? Unnoticed amid the louder political debates, there was a study a few years ago, which found that in the growing climate crisis, there is a correlation between the planet’s rising temperature and the growing anger and divisiveness within the human communities. We are, after all, part of this planet, even if we’ve forgotten that; so we are (in a way) mirroring the fever of our Mother Earth, enflamed by the constant vibrational anxiety of cultural and familial discord.
The folks who study trauma, have explained that we are all so saturated with multiple traumas – from 9/11 to the pandemic to renewed fears of Russian nuclear weapons, not to mention the current hurricanes and climate-affected natural disasters around the world – one crisis after another has bombarded us to the point where none of us can think rationally. Thinking, and compassion, require that we calm our trauma triggers which live in our bodies and specifically our lizard-brain amygdala. When we are in fight, flight, freeze or fawn we literally cannot think – that function is part of our pre-frontal cortex, as is our sense of safety in community, our compassion, and our hope. Ol’ lizard brain is always looking for the next disaster, for the next shoe to fall, for the next Other to be revealed as Enemy.
So who have we cast out this year? Because we were too activated to welcome the stranger; because we were too afraid of difference to hear what we may have in common, because we were too scared for our own security to reach out a helping hand? As we journey through these Days of Awe, how might we settle our trauma and our self-righteousness to consider what has caused hurt and fear in those we deem Other. What is the teshuvah that will allow us to return to a sense of beloved community, not just with fellow humans but with our miraculous world?
For trauma to be transmuted and transformed, requires action. Just like the gazelle running from the tiger, we have to get out of our frozen fear by moving. When Hagar was cast out, she almost succumbed to fear and hopelessness, but she realized that to save her child she needed to act – to find the spring of water which would not only allow her and Ishmael to survive but which became a source of spiritual healing for Muslims to this day.
Hagar’s spring, and our Sandy River, touch us in primal ways. Water holds memory. It represents our emotions – when blocked the waters of our heart burst their dam in destructive ways, but when encouraged to flow compassionately can bring healing; just as salmon are returning to our rivers freed of their dams. Water purifies and renews, which is why mikveh and tashlich have such a visceral place in our lives. The tears of release, the tears of regret, and the tears of joy each has a different chemical composition, yet all provide healing.
So we come to the river, to acknowledge that fear has led us to make choices which caused harm to ourselves or others. We come to mourn and witness the ways we have gone along with the status quo or bought the illusions marketed to us as convenience. We come to cast off that which no longer serves us, so that like Hagar, we might find the wellsprings of hope, so that we can be enactors of healing change rather than frozen spectators in our own lives.