This dvar Torah was delivered at Anshe Emet in Chicago.
Parashat Tetzaveh, 11 Adar Rishon, 5779
Shabbat shalom! It is an honor and privilege to be with you this Shabbat. I wish to extend a sincere thanks to the Kehilah Kedoshah committee, as well as to the Anshe Emet clergy for inviting me. Parashat Tetzaveh, coming directly on the heels of parashat Terumah, continues the instructions for building the mishkan or tabernacle. The bulk of our parsha centers on the holy garments that are to be created for use when performing the priestly service in the mishkan. Just as with last week, we see here a lengthy and very detailed description of how these clothes are to be fashioned and which materials are to be used. As was true with the mishkan, every detail is tended to. Our Torah’s attention to detail here again signifies to us that this is an incredibly important aspect of the service that the kohanim would be performing. If a kohen did not have the priestly garments on, he was still a kohen but was unable to perform the priestly sacrificial service.
Commentators have noted that it is curious that our Torah spends some 400 verses describing the construction of the mishkan, all of its implements and the priestly garments to be worn at this point, when the Children of Israel have just been freed from slavery. Why do we shift so quickly in Shmot from Divine revelation at Sinai to a detailed discussion first of miscellaneous civil laws in Parashat Mishpatim, to the mishkan’s construction in Terumah and to the fashioning of the priestly garments in Tetzaveh?
Much has been made of the fact or perhaps truism that for those of us who are visual, judging someone by their appearance is pretty commonplace and often quite subconscious. For those of us who are nonvisual or for whom visual information plays a less central role in how we navigate the world, the messages we receive about clothing do quickly translate to a snap judgement of the individual wearing that clothing as well. There are reasons why we wear particular garments at particular times, even without the Beit HaMikdash in Yerushalayim, and even in a time in which kohenim play a far less central role in Jewish worship. Though we are not able to replicate the garments of the priests, we are to remember that we are all members of a holy people, and one way we signify that to this day is by the wearing of fringes or tzitzit. Some of us choose to wear a tallit katan underneath our clothes, as well as a larger tallit when at morning prayer. Others of us choose to mark ourselves as members of the Jewish people through the wearing of a kippah. And still others choose to wear jewelry with a magen David or other important Jewish symbol or signifier. When we choose to mark ourselves in this way, we are affirming the importance of our Jewishness. However, we must also navigate the world knowing that our commitments read in a variety of ways to those we encounter, and we know, instinctively, that we cannot control the reactions or attitudes of others. We likely face a variety of responses, some supportive, others curious, and perhaps, most unfortunately, others that are hostile or judgmental. We hope that by visibly signifying our Jewishness, we are able to offer a window into what it means to live a life of Torah and mitzvot. And, at the same time, we know that the choice we make to mark ourselves as Jewish also lends itself to an increased exposure to the projections and baggage that others carry.
For the past decade or so, February has been designated as Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month, a time when Jewish communities across North America take some time to think about the many intersecting issues impacting Jews with disabilities in all facets of Jewish life. We might do a cheshbon—an accounting—of where our communities are on any number of metrics pertinent to inclusion. Are our sanctuaries accessible to all who want to find a spiritual home within them? Are Jews with disabilities assuming a variety of leadership roles within our kehillot? Do folks feel warmly welcomed when they enter our sacred spaces? What are we doing to help strengthen genuine, mutual, authentic, reciprocal relationship-building for everyone in our communities? These are some questions we sit with this month, and too often, we opine that we are not seeing changes as quickly as we would like. Often, the work feels overwhelming, momentous, multifaceted and diffuse. Where are the support structures, the educational frameworks that we could rely upon so that we don’t feel like we are constantly reinventing the wheel? It feels like there’s a missing ingredient, an element that is absent from the conversations we have this month, and thus I want to draw our attention back to the discussion of the priestly garments.
Just as those of us who visibly mark ourselves as Jewish—as other—in a majority non-Jewish country sometimes encounter snap judgements and projections from others as we go about our day, so, too, do people with disabilities. In a world that humans created to structurally advantage some bodies over others, our Jewish tradition radically and importantly reminds us that we are all created in the Image of G-d, that we each carry a spark of divinity within, and that, because HaShem gave us free will, we can choose whether to reveal that divine spark into the world through how we treat others. We can also choose, through our actions and attitude, to conceal that holiness, that divinity. As a dear friend, mentor and colleague of mine, Rabbi Dr. Julia Watts Belser importantly teaches, people with disabilities are experts in the art of managing the anxieties, the discomfort and fears of others. We do it every day, whether we are conscious of it or not. We know all too well what it feels like to live in a world in which a moment’s glance, a split second decision has the power to radically alter our lives. We know what it feels like when the so-called experts on our disability, impairment or diagnosis make predictions about our outcomes that severely hamper us. Sometimes, we might even come to expect the naysayers, the “I don’t know how you’ll ever be able to do that”, the “I just don’t know if that’s possible—it’s never been done before”. And, worn out and worn down, we might enter our Jewish community carrying a lot of fear and prepared with our defensive armor. What sort of attitudinal barriers might we encounter? Those of us who are working to develop a sense of pride in our identities as people with disabilities might hope that our visibility will help diminish the stigma that accompanies all of us on our journeys through life. And yet, that still, small voice in the back of our head nags at us—will I be able to show up as who I am in all that I am here?
I am the first blind woman, as far as I am aware, to become a rabbi. That meant a lot of things—it meant moments of tremendous joy and celebration, a profound sense of accomplishment and a deep awareness of the abundance of blessing in my life. It takes a village to raise a rabbi and in the case of this rabbi, it took a village of people unafraid to think outside of the box, who said yes even when they didn’t know how we would get from point A to point B. It meant folks saying yes even when that meant a lot of trial and error, even when that meant soul-crushing spiritual despair and disappointment. They said yes even when it meant that they would need to sit with the humility, the anavah, that it takes to recognize when they don’t know what they don’t know. They said yes with the Emunah, the knowingness, that collaboration and authentic partnership would make all of the difference.
And yet. I also know deep in my bones what it means when a snap judgement, a split second decision based on my appearance and ability status resulted in a no. The Shabbat tables I sat at, week after week, in which people questioned how I would ever go to rabbinical school. The programs that took one look at me and, assuming that accommodating me would be too costly and burdensome, said no. When we allow that narrowness, that discomfort, that fear to entrap us, we lose so much Torah, we lose so much richness, because we are afraid of our own vulnerability, we are afraid of what it means to be the child who doesn’t know how to ask. Or, worse still, we don’t know how to be the simple child, the one who has questions but, out of fear of offending, closes doors of possibility and promise. We don’t know what it means to sit with our growing edges, our fears, our discomforts. Our contemporary culture, long on visual aesthetics and short on contemplative moments, teaches us that sitting with ourselves is scary and ought to be avoided. And, yet, we know that we build truly accessible and inclusive spaces not by looking at these intersecting and interlocking concerns s a series of problems to be solved, throwing up our hands when a solution doesn’t immediately reveal itself. We know that we build deeply inclusive and accessible communities when we honor the wisdom of others, when we are willing to inhabit the expansive space of not knowing, when we bring our beginner’s mind, our radical curiosity to the fore. And we know, because HaShem revealed HaShem’s Torah to all of us, in a way we could understand, that we must set aside quick judgements in favor of allowing all of that Torah into our holy places.