It has become something of a cliché in the circles I run in these days that when a teacher of Torah or a clergyperson from any religious tradition, for that matter, sits down to write a sermon, the sermon they often write is that which they most need to hear. It has also become something of a cliché that often, that which emerges from our divrei Torah which lands less well is reflective of the inner struggles of the darshan or darshanit. Teachers of Torah, in other words, must always take great care when they are teaching and when they are preparing to teach to do a personal cheshbon hanefesh or soul accounting. What is calling out to me from this particular text and why am I drawn to teach it in this moment? Is it that I am truly moved and inspired by a specific teaching and I yearn to share that newfound insight with others? In tender moments, what is going on for me internally which draws me to a specific passage? Am I trying to work some inner emotional, spiritual or political struggle out from the bimah?
Those questions are examples of what that soul accounting could entail, and it is something I strive, imperfectly, to do every time I sit down to write a dvar Torah. The awareness that the cheshbon hanefesh is so foundational is borne out, unfortunately, from having experienced the spiritual and emotional aftermath of too many incredible teachers of sacred text conveying deeply wounding messages and knowing in the deepest part of my soul that in most cases, the intent and impact are worlds apart. Indeed, I firmly believe and seek to live this out in my daily interactions and in my generosity of spirit, that the vast majority of human beings are doing the best they can, even and especially, as hard it is for many of us to remember, in political and social moments such as our current one.
It has become something of an annual tradition that I write lengthy divrei Torah on parshiot Kedoshim and Emor. I begin with the premise that the Torah is speaking to us in every generation, or as we are taught in Perkei Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers, a tractate of the Mishnah, turn it turn it, for everything is in it. I find myself returning, like clockwork, to the same pesukim in these parshiot year after year, as new insights manifest themselves, and as the years’ worth of life experiences I have accrued allow me to be in conversation with the Torah text even more deeply than before.
This, despite knowing that both Torah portions contain within them endless possibilities for exploration and worlds of spiritual insight, unrelated at all to disability, which tends to be the focus of these commentaries.
And so, I find myself returning to the questions with which I began this drash. What is arising within me that is causing me to feel compelled from within to drash on the same verses year after year? I find myself engaging in that inner work even as I am presently writing, challenging the well-worn stories I tell about myself, about the disability community, about how others perceive and relate to us. I tell myself that I’m so well-suited, which, though not entirely untrue, is also not the only truth out there. I, blessedly, am not, thank God, the only spiritual leader living with a disability and I pray that our numbers continue to increase, speedily and in our days. The burden of representing the experience of blindness and the religious life is not mine to bear alone.
The Torah I feel called to teach tends to focus on the narrowness with which traditional Jewish commentators have understood Vayikra/Leviticus 19:14, do not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear Hashem I am Hashem. (Translation mine). Rashi, an 11th-century French Biblical commentator, and one of the Jewish tradition’s most famous understood this verse metaphorically, focusing mostly on the latter half and creating a category of halakhah called lifnei ivir or before the blind, which, rightly, forbids deceiving anyone, causing others to go astray or giving a person bad advice. To place a stumbling block before the blind, as I understand Rashi’s reading, is transformed from a seemingly literal commandment not to place a physical object that could be a tripping hazard in front of someone who is blind into an expansive read in which placing stumbling blocks is understood as behavioral in nature. In previous drashot, I focused a great deal on how Rashi’s understanding writes out the experiences of individuals who are blind. I have read numerous commentaries which imply or assume that of course, reading this commandment metaphorically is the obvious next step because what decent person would, Hashem forbid, place a stumbling block in front of a blind person?
Unfortunately, the assumption of the irrelevance of a literal read of this d’oraita or Biblical commandment is illustrative of the ways in which human beings tend to fall into the trap of placing those whom they do not know and whom they may indeed fear at arm’s length, not wanting to hear, understand or empathize with their experiences or lived reality in this world so desperately in need of tikkun. I would find myself feeling that I had to prove, endlessly, that the literal commandment held, just as strongly as it ever has, and that our Torah is commanding us to remove all barriers to access for folks with disabilities, not just blind folks. Those barriers are physical, attitudinal, economic, structural and spiritual, and it is this latter area that I am called to focus on this year.
I have sat for some time with the increasing awareness that my read, to which I had become just as habituated as so many of my fellow teachers of Torah had become to an immediate referencing to Rashi was itself metaphorical. Baruch Hashem, the Torah has seventy faces, infinite interpretations and insights which manifest themselves to us in varying ways. We all were at Sinai, and we all received the revelation of Torah collectively, as well as individually, in a way we could understand it. Perhaps, then, I am being called to reveal the increasing awareness I am holding around the spiritual imperatives of this commandment, even as doing so is quite difficult. Yet, to be an honest and authentic teacher of Torah, I can do no less.
In his incredible sefer, Aish Kodesh, a collection of sermons given in the Warsaw Ghetto, the Piaseczna Rebbe teaches in a drasha on Parashat Chayei Sarah that Sarah Emmeinu, Sarah our mother, died after the Binding of Isaac because the amount of suffering she had experienced was simply too much. With so much spiritual and pastoral sensitivity, borne out of his own experience of losing his family in the most horrific way several weeks prior, the Piaseczna notes that as much suffering as a person can handle in their life, there comes a time when they break, when it is all too much. It is, in my understanding, directly in opposition to the oft-repeated and deeply problematic idea that Hashem does not give a human being more than they are able to handle.
We don’t talk often enough about spiritual stumbling blocks placed in front of individuals living with disabilities because I believe, for many of us with disabilities, the immensity, the enormity of the pain and trauma is simply too much. We might have felt so systemically silenced that we lose the ability to articulate the woundedness. We might have found ourselves, particularly if we ourselves seek to live a richly rewarding religious or spiritual life explaining to people close to us why we are so drawn, as religious traditions as they are so often interpreted have been a source of profound emotional and spiritual violence. Indeed, I did an interview a month or so ago in which the host, rightly I believe, spent the first few minutes acknowledging that religious teachings have been interpreted in profoundly alienating ways for the disability community, urging her listeners, most of whom themselves were people with disabilities to engage as best as they were able. I feel it is my sacred obligation, in fact, to acknowledge this reality.
It is precisely because I am so deeply aware of and impacted by the ways in which teachers of Torah and of sacred text more broadly have too frequently been sources of spiritual alienation for folks with disabilities that I want to offer another way. Having experienced this both interpersonally and as part of a larger audience, I understand viscerally what these stumbling blocks feel like. There are moments when living authentically as a religious person feels nearly impossible, given the ways in which those who think of themselves as vessels of Torah are not manifesting life-giving Torah. And truly, all of us who cling to Torah are able to manifest our unique Torah into the world, though far too many of us have been told that we have no ability, no power to do so, a profoundly disempowering posture that is hard to overcome.
As Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, an early Chasidic master reminds us, even in those moments in which Hashem’s face is hidden, in which we feel divine absence and contraction most acutely, even there, Hashem can be found. This teaching has meant different things to me at different times. Broadly, I understand Rebbe Nachman to be saying that even amidst unbearable pain of any kind, Hashem does not abandon a person, created in Hashem’s image, even and especially when it feels like the rest of the world has.
The Piaseczna, in a later drash about Pesach notes that we are able to create our own sense of redemption, and that our redemption is created through finding ways to engage and grow spiritually, learn Torah and seek to be in service to the Holy One of Blessing. If the Torah is the heritage of all Jews, a tree of life to all who hold fast to her, we are able to live redemptively and well when we seek to take the da’at, the knowledge, for which we offer gratitude to Hashem thrice daily in a traditional Amidah that we have acquired and bring that to bear to the Torah we seek to reveal into the world. Indeed, revelation of Torah in its fullness includes all of us. Blind folks and disability communities are sources of profound knowledge and wisdom about the human experience, and our wisdom is often not brought to bear in religious conversation and theological understanding. If we are to remove the spiritual stumbling blocks that so often block us from thriving and flourishing, we must carve out spaces to bring our wisdom to sacred tables. This task is upon all of us, spiritual and lay leaders alike, working together in mutual, collaborative and authentic partnership.
I bless all of us that in those moments in which we find ourselves feeling particularly marginalized or like the Torah isn’t ours to hold onto because we are somehow unworthy or not good enough that we seek to remember that Hashem wants us to live in alignment with our best selves and to teach the Torah we embody. I bless those of us who find ourselves feeling that our knowledge, coming out of a lived experience of disability or any other human experience that is uncommon or discomfiting for many is not able to be heard and internalized by others, may we always remember that Hashem created us as we are, not so we could simply passively accept the world as it is with all of the need for tikkun and teshuva, but so we could remember that everybody, every life, is infinitely valuable, of worth. If we are to live with a geulah consciousness and experience moments of our own personal redemption, we owe it to ourselves and to the world to remember how unconditionally loved we are and how valuable our rich human experiences are. May we find partners in this holy work who are able to lift up our Torah and bring it to even wider communities of souls thirsting for life-giving waters.
May we each find the inner strength to allow our spiritual radiance to manifest itself in a world so desperately in need of it. May we not accept the world as it is but daily, even in the smallest of ways, even if it is only when we are alone with our own thoughts, strive for the world as it should be.