Next week, the birthday of gay rights activist Harvey Milk falls on the Jewish holiday of Lag B'Omer. They share some common themes, symbolized by the shared icon the rainbow, which urge us to come together in our diversity work for ever-expanding inclusion.
Keshet: A Bow of Beauty and Action
Just as Yiddish newspapers were first printing Sholem Aleichem’s stories about “Tevye the Dairyman,” a real-life milkman made a real-life journey from the shtetl to America. Like Tevye, Mausche Milch was married with five children, and like the hero of Fiddler on the Roof, he also fled economic hardship to seek opportunity in the New World. After six years in America, having left Kansas City for the more urbane New York, Mausche Milch—now called Morris Milk—was finally able to bring his family to the United States. Among them was six-year-old Hieke, who would now be known as William; and he, in turn would have a son of his own. On May 22, 1930, Mausche Milch’s grandson was born: Harvey Bernard Milk.
Harvey Milk, for many, is a household name. He was California’s first openly gay elected official, and his promising political career was cut tragically short when he was assassinated in 1978. He is famous for urging gay people across the country to come out of the closet en masse. His hope was that, when enough people realized that cherished friends and family members were gay, homophobia would wane.
Though rightly discouraged by the Jewish community’s stance toward gay people, Milk was nevertheless proud of his heritage. His close friend, Sharyn Saslafsky, recalls, “I think the basis of who Harvey was personally and politically was really very Jewish in the sense of being active and making a difference, taking responsibility, [and] empowering people.”
Next Wednesday, which would have been Harvey Milk’s 89th birthday, will also mark a peculiar Jewish holiday called Lag B’Omer. And while the two may seem at first to have nothing in common, a closer look reveals some surprising and significant overlaps.
Lag B’Omer, which literally means “the 33rd day of counting the omer,” is one day of celebration in the midst of seven weeks traditionally observed as minor days of mourning. This period of mourning honors tens of thousands of Jews slain in a revolt against the Roman Empire, and the celebration on Lag B’Omer recalls a miraculous respite from the violence remembered on the 33rd day after Passover.
One of the customs of Lag B’Omer, still common across the State of Israel, is for children to shoot off bows and arrows … usually toys. Though “this is an obvious reference to the warlike activities” of the Jews in contention with Rome, there is another, deeper meaning for this custom.
One of the survivors of the revolt against Rome was a rabbi named Shimon Bar Yochai. He was one of the most learned, influential, and pious rabbis of his age, and indeed, he has been considered by some the most righteous person ever to have lived. One legendary account says, “In the days of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, no rainbow was ever seen” (Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 65a). This is because the rainbow, the symbol of God’s promise never to destroy the world, was not necessary so long as Shimon Bar Yochai lived. His mere presence on earth was sign enough of God’s favor toward humanity. So, as the Chasidic Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Rimonov teaches, the bow of Lag B’Omer—the one with the arrows—and the bow of God’s covenant—the one with the colors—are one and the same bow, called keshet in Hebrew, at once a symbol of peace and a symbol of righteous resistance.
And here is where Harvey Milk meets Lag B’Omer.
In the early 1970s, the most recognizable icon of gay pride was the pink triangle. A generation earlier, this symbol had been forced upon gay prisoners of Nazi concentration camps, and it had been reclaimed and redeemed by gay activists. But by 1978, Milk told artist Gilbert Baker that it was time for a new, more positive symbol of empowerment. Baker took on Milk’s challenge and designed a new image that has served as the emblem of the queer community for more than 40 years: the rainbow flag.
Why a rainbow? As Baker explained, “The rainbow is so perfect because it really fits our diversity in terms of race, gender, ages, [and so on].” In 1996, this symbolic rainbow inspired one of my seminary professors to launch a new Jewish organization called Keshet. The organization is well aware of the two meanings of its name, explaining on its website, “Keshet is a Hebrew word meaning both ‘rainbow,’ a symbol of LGBTQ pride, and ‘bow,’ an instrument for action.” Just like the two bows of Lag B’Omer.
Keshet has continued to expand and impact the Jewish world for more than twenty years. In fact, Oak Park Temple has recently joined a community of practice convened by Keshet here in Chicago to advance our efforts of inclusion toward people who are LGBTQ, which means lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer. A few temple members and I attended a training workshop last fall; our staff and some board members have engaged in additional training tailored for our synagogue; and several other projects remain underway. We believe that paying special attention to inclusion of LGBTQ people is good not only for this particular population but also helps us be more welcoming and embracing of everyone.
Even when our hearts are in the right place, it can be hard to get it right. These efforts of inclusion can be very challenging, especially in the face of ever-changing understandings of gender identity that can often be confusing, even disorienting. But whether we’re novices or experts, fluent in terms of gender expression or still grasping for vocabulary, we’re in it together. We are joined, like the colors of a rainbow, in our commitment to make Judaism open to all, especially those to whom it has been closed for so long.
The whole point of a rainbow, after all, is to display the beauty of unity-in-diversity. The first rainbow was created, according to midrash (Avot 5:6), on the eve of the very first Shabbat and was always intended for its purpose as a sign of God’s commitment to protect the earth. Way back in the book of Genesis, this rainbow is called a brit olam, an eternal covenant, and it’s actually one of five such covenants in the Torah. God also makes a brit olam with Abraham and Isaac (Gen. 17) and, as we know from V’shamru, assigns Shabbat as a brit olam as well (Ex. 31).
That leaves one to go, which we find in this week’s Torah portion. And it shouldn’t be a surprise that this brit olam once again underscores the importance of unity-in-diversity.
In Emor, the People of Israel are instructed to offer, every Shabbat, twelve loaves of challah, arranged carefully, week by week, by the high priest himself. The 12th-century Spanish commentator Abraham ibn Ezra explains that one loaf is offered for each of the twelve tribes. In other words, we can only fulfill our role in this eternal covenant if we come together as a diverse community, each contributing what they can, to represent the full spectrum—the complete rainbow—of humanity.
Rainbows are not only beautiful; they are sacred. One Talmudic sage suggests that everyone who sees a rainbow should fall to the ground in awe, and another instructs us to recite a blessing otherwise reserved only for hearing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah (BT Berachot 59a). And the Zohar, the sacred text of kabbalah—whose fictitious author is our legendary Shimon Bar Yochai—teaches that a rainbow served as the very clothing Moses wore as he ascended Mount Sinai.
And so it is that we join our prayers with those of our ancestors that the eternal covenant of the keshet remain ever in our midst. May we continue to expand our tent to include and support those on the margins of our community, aware that we all become more holy through coming together in diversity. And, in the words of the mystical Pri Etz Hadar, “Let the rainbow appear, proudly rejoicing in its colors. And from there, may we find pardon and forgiveness for our past mistakes, enjoying abundance, favor, and compassion over us all.”
 Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye had seven children, though Fiddler on the Roof portrays only five. As well, Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye departs the shtetl for Palestine, though the character in Fiddler on the Roof is headed for New York.
 Biographical information is from Lillian Faderman’s Harvey Milk: His Lives and Deaths (Yale University Press, 2018), Chapter 1: “The Milchs.”
 See, for instance, his speech “That’s What America Is” (June 25, 1978) available online: https://friendsofharvey.wordpress.com/2015/11/27/remembering-harveymilk-1978-san-francisco-gay-freedom-rally-speech-in-full.
 See, for example, Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 493:2: נוהגים שלא להסתפר עד ל"ג לעומר שאומרים שאז פסקו מלמות, “It is customary not to cut one's hair until Lag BaOmer, since it is said that that is when they stopped dying.”
 Isaac Klein’s A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice on Lag B’Omer, p. 146.
 רבי חזקיה בשם רבי ירמיה כל ימיו של רבי שמעון בן יוחאי לא נראתה הקשת בענן.
בני יששכר, מאמרי חודש אייר ג:ד
מנהג ישראל אשר התלמידים בני בי רב יורו בקשת ביום הזה. והנה שמעתי מאת כבוד אדומ"ו הרב הקדוש ר' מנחם מנדל מרימנוב זצוק"ל הטעם הוא, כי בימי ר' שמעון לא נראתה הקשת (עיין כתובות עז ב).7 והנה ביום עלותו למרום עושין הסימן הזה, עד כאן דבריו.
Benei Yisaskhar (R. Tzvi Elimelekh Shapira, 1783-1841, Poland), Ma’amarei Hodesh Iyyar 3:4
It is a custom of Israel that school-age children shoot with a bow (keshet) on this day. And I have heard from his honor, my teacher, R. Menahem Mendel of Rimonov, that the reason is that during the days of R. Shimon bar Yohai, the rainbow (keshet) was not seen in the sky. So on the day of his ascent to heaven, we display this sign.
Text taken from Dena Weiss’ d’var Torah, “On Bows and Arrows,” available online: https://mechonhadar.s3.amazonaws.com/mh_torah_source_sheets/CJLVParashatEmor5779.pdf.
 Ibn Ezra on Leviticus 24:6
ב׳ מַֽעֲרָכוֹת. במספר השבטים כסוד האפוד והחשן. או שְׁנֵי עֶשְׂרֹנִים כמספר המערכות:
Two rows [of six loaves]. Corresponding to the number of tribes as in the mystery of the Ephod and the Breastplate. Or, “two tenths [of a measure]” from the previous verse corresponds to the number of rows [of loaves].
 Zohar II:99a
פתח ההוא סבא ואמר, (שמות כד יח) ויבא משה בתוך הענן ויעל אל ההר וגו', ענן דא מאי הוא, אלא דא הוא דכתיב, (בראשית ט יג) את קשתי נתתי בענן, תנינן דההוא קשת אשלחת לבושוי ויהיב לון למשה, ובההוא לבושא סליק משה לטורא.
The Elder opened and said, “Moses came from the cloud and ascended the mountain” (Ex. 24:18) What is the cloud? As it is written, “My rainbow, I have placed in the cloud” (Gen. 9:13). We have taught that this rainbow transmits its garments to Moses, and in this garment, Moses ascended the mountain.
Modified translation of: וְנִרְאֲתָה הַקֶשֶׁת שָׂשׂ וּמִתְפָּאֵר בְּגוָֹונִים שֶׁלּוֹ וּמִשָּׂם יוּשְׁפַּע עָלֵינוּ שֶׁפַע רָצוֹן וְרַחֲמִים לִמְחוֹל וְלִסְלַֹח מֵעֲוֹנוֹתֵינוּ וְאַשְׁמָתֵנוּ אֲשֶׁר נוֹאַלְנוּ וַאֲשֶר חָטָאנוּ.
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”