Starting From the Same Beginner’s Mind

Starting From the Same Beginner’s Mind

This teaching appeared as part of Hot Off The Shtender, a series of teachings from SVARA fellows. Starting From The Same Beginner’s Mind

Kedoshim 5781

Our double parsha this week, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, as with so much of Torah, covers a lot of ground and is multi-faceted and multi-layered. These parshiyot contain verses that have provided considerable strength and inspiration to us throughout the centuries, as well as verses that have caused tremendous pain. I am going to be focusing in this dvar Torah on a verse found in the 19th chapter of Leviticus. “לֹא־תְקַלֵּ֣ל חֵרֵ֔שׁ וְלִפְנֵ֣י עִוֵּ֔ר לֹ֥א תִתֵּ֖ן מִכְשֹׁ֑ל וְיָרֵ֥אתָ מֵּאֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ אֲנִ֥י יְהוָֽה׃ You shall not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God: I am the LORD.” (Leviticus 19:14, JPS translation).

This verse contains two distinct, yet simultaneously interconnected mitzvot. Leviticus 19 is often referred to by scholars as the holiness code of Torah, as it contains a variety of interpersonal and agricultural mitzvot whose intent is to create a world in which we are aware that we, like G-d, are holy and must live lives of sanctity. The mitzvot the Torah presents us with here—do not curse the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind—you should fear Hashem I am Hashem—have been classically understood in a variety of ways. Ibn Ezra holds that we should not curse the deaf because we have the power to do so and if we do, G-d will punish us by making us deaf and blind. Rashi interprets the verse metaphorically, understanding the prohibition against putting a stumbling block before the blind to be about not deceiving someone or misleading them. The logic of the metaphorical read, which has been widely adopted, is that no decent person, upon seeing a blind person approaching would think to put a boulder in their path. Lifnei Ivir or before the blind has henceforth become an expansive halakhic category, whose application is manifold. We aren’t to mislead someone by giving poor advice, or in business deals, etc., as to do so is to place a stumbling block in their path.

I have argued for years that there is tremendous power in the Torah’s words here. As a blind woman and someone committed to Torah and to remaining in relationship with this holy tradition, even and especially when doing so is very painful, when I read these two prohibitions against cursing the deaf and placing a stumbling block before the blind, I experience The Divine affirming the very real, complex lived experiences of deaf folks, blind folks, and those who are deafblind. Our experiences are as varied as we are and the circumstances of our lives as diverse as anyone’s. Yet, on a very literal level, I have navigated more than my fair share of obstacles, tripping hazards and the like. G-d isn’t simply prohibiting boulders placed in people’s way deliberately or maliciously. Rather, what would the world be experienced and felt like if we took great care to create accessible paths for all of us, so that we could navigate with ease and freedom? These prohibitions also recognize the power dynamics that are inherent in human relationships. I say that without moral judgement but simply by way of naming a truth. As a hearing person, I could choose not to provide accurate renderings of what I’m saying to folks who sign. Blind folks’ access to visual information, while improving, is still highly limited, leaving many feeling increasingly separate from others. As an educator, I experience this on Zoom in numerous ways, at the same time as I am grateful that important work is being done to remedy these disparities.

The impulse to assume that the Torah’s prohibitions here cannot be literal is a natural one—it is hard to fathom a scenario in which an individual would intentionally place a stumbling block before a blind person or curse a deaf person. Yet, as with so much in Torah, we are, I believe, being divinely encouraged to look within and take an accounting of our actions and working assumptions. When we are not in relationship with individuals about or to whom particular verses apply, it is easy to narrow their scope. Put another way, without meaningful, authentic and mutual relationships with a diverse group of individuals, I might not think that something like refraining from placing a stumbling block in the path of a blind person means all that much. When I get curious about the lived experiences of those I hold close and those who are not in my circle but are in my society, I am able to expand the palace of my own understanding and thereby to expand the palace of Torah in all of its fullness.

I hold that Torah is eternally relevant, speaking to us in every generation. Or, put another way, the Torah speaks in the language of human beings so that we can understand and live it out fully in the world. The Torah, as we learn in Deuteronomy, is close to us, it is not far away, in the heavens or beyond the sea, but in our mouths to do it. Hashem has revealed Hashem’s Torah to us so that we might internalize it and live in right relationship. We are also given the opportunity to bring our interpretations and applications to bear on the lengthy and ongoing conversation across time, geography and circumstance. Mine is the perspective of one blind woman. I certainly do not speak for the blind community, nor could I, even if that was my desire. There is room for many reads, many challenges, many pathways in.

As a lover of Torah and as someone who believes passionately in the ability of people with disabilities to thrive and live lives of meaning, when I approach classical interpretations of this verse, I am being asked to stretch myself to accommodate multiple truths. On the one hand, Ibn Ezra’s interpretation hurts at first read. I do not hold for a moment that blindness or deafness are punishments from G-d, G-d-forbid. Blindness and deafness are normal, natural parts of the human condition that people across all lines of social difference live with. Many people live lives of incredible meaning and depth and think of their deafness or blindness as inherent parts of who they are, as integral to their individual and spiritual identities as anything else about them. It is also true that discrimination and truly abhorrent behavior from others are things that many of us have to contend with. And that is a hard reality, but a necessary one to name. Ibn Ezra’s comment, read radically differently, is a reminder to all of us that the energy we put out into the world, how we view others, has a tremendous impact upon them and even more, on us.

A story from the Talmud (Taanit 20AB) illustrates this quite aptly. A rabbi is riding on his donkey home after a day of Torah study, feeling quite proud of his learning. He encounters a man who has some sort of apparent disfigurement or is in the eyes of the rabbi very unattractive. The man offers a deferential greeting, to which the rabbi responds by disparaging him and asking if all of the people who come from his city are as ugly as he is. The man replies, without missing a beat that he doesn’t know, but that perhaps the rabbi needs to go and ask the Craftsman who made him, telling the Craftsman, “how ugly is the vessel you made”. By insulting another human being, created in the image of G-d, we are insulting the Divine.

A theological foundation of mine is that Genesis 1:27, which teaches us that every human being is created in G-d’s image is perhaps one of the Torah’s most radical teachings. As my teacher and noted rabbi, scholar and disability activist Rabbi Dr. Julia Watts Belser notes, believing that we are all created in the image of G-d is beautiful and essential theology, and it calls us to act on our radical commitments. Referencing this idea, in other words, carries little weight if I’m not actively living it out and embodying it in all that I am. Noted sociologist and shame researcher, Dr. Brene Brown noted in a podcast released shortly after the attack on the United States Capital that dehumanization fuels hate, urging her listeners to take great care not to dehumanize others in action, speech or thought, even as we do the crucial work of doing all we can to eradicate hate and prejudice from our midst.

So, too, our Torah is calling us to not ignore what might feel like a simplistic couple of mitzvot. Rather, G-d is reminding us that if we want to create a holy society, to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, that it is upon all of us to create a barrier-free society.

On COVID-19 and New Accessible Opportunities For Us All

New Accessible Jewish Paradigm shifts in the Wake of COVID-19

March 20, 2020


This week has been a challenging and uncertain one for our world. We know we’re in this for the long haul, that things are going to get worse before they get better. Many of us feel profoundly unmoored as mainstays of our lives are temporarily closing. The rhythms of our days feel off and knowing that we don’t know how long this will last, we don’t yet know when the structures of our days will return to what they once were. None of us have ever lived through something like this. We feel anchorless, directionless, and for the most vulnerable—including many people with disabilities and underlying health conditions—this time of deep uncertainty comes with a host of other unknowns.


The past two weeks have seen the proliferation of Jewish programming online. You can stream a synagogue service any day you choose, drop into a class or even attend a concert. All of this is done out of necessity for sure, but it is also coming from a deep knowing that people seek meaning, connection and solace. In the flurry of activity, something felt deeply discordant to me. The pace at which programming and even prayer books became available online was due to the fact that these things—accommodations, if you were—are now what the majority population requires. We structure our society to center and prioritize the needs of majority populations, even in this ever-shifting reality. We too often forget those on the margins, namely folks living with disability and chronic illness. I believe that this forgetting is because our communities of care—individually and communally–don’t often include us. We are not often seen as peers or equals. We tend to prioritize those needs and concerns that impact our lives most immediately and viscerally. Though the disability community is 20% of the human family, our needs are frequently deprioritized because the perception is that the needed accommodations and supports will impact a small number of people only—hence, not worth the time, effort and expense. When we have someone in our life who requires alternative means of access, we are more inclined to work towards that. Why? Because accessibility is no longer an abstract thing, it’s concrete.  Many folks living with disabilities and chronic illness have been dealing with the impact of isolation for a long time. Many have been dealing with the indescribable pain of wanting to be in community and not being able to access it. Imagine what it feels like, now, to get that taste of access. For some folks, it’s for the first time.


For many people with disabilities, this newfound ease of access is accompanied by a host of complex feelings. Many yearn to return to in-person gatherings, even as we recognize the access we now enjoy to things we may not have ever had access to before. For some of us, the ease with which electronic publications became available online has caused some challenging feelings to arise around how quickly things can become universally available when the need feels urgent. As someone who is blind, digital accessibility is a key concern of mine. Though we have seen the proliferation of e-books from Jewish and mainstream publishers on Bookshare, Kindle and other distributors, getting digitally accessible prayer books has been a challenge that has often felt insurmountable. When advocating for alternate format production of printed materials, there are important considerations that must be sensitively navigated which go beyond the scope of this piece. Nevertheless, it is important for all of us to reflect upon the perception that many folks in the disability community have that our needs are simply lower priority, which can leave us feeling dispensable and unwanted in Jewish community.


Moshe Rabbeinu, our greatest prophet is someone who had a speech impediment of some kind. In Shmot/Exodus 4, G-d tells Moshe that he will lead the Children of Israel out of Egypt. Moshe demurs, citing his speech impediment. Immediately, G-d responds with a rhetorical question—who created you? Was it not I, G-d? Did I not create you in my image just like every other human being? Here is your necessary accommodation—your brother, Aaron will serve as your spokesperson. Disability is a natural part of the human condition. I believe that the reason the Torah names specific groups of individuals in G-d’s reply—blind folks, deaf folks, folks with physical and speech disabilities—is because G-d understands that we often forget that we, too, are created in the image of G-d. Disability advocates have often pointed out that the world was not designed for us. And that is due to the choices that we humans make each and every day to prioritize some over others. In this time of turning inward, we are being given an unparalleled opportunity to make a course correction. I pray we take it.  G-d, through G-d’s retort to Moshe, reminds him and all of us that to build a mikdash—a sanctuary in which the Divine Presence can feel truly at home—we must structure our world so that we all can thrive as our best selves.


Many fear that once life returns to a semblance of normalcy, we will return to a world in which virtual offerings are fewer and not nearly as robust. What would it be like to use the gifts of this time—the gifts of out-of-the-box thinking and trying new things to shape a reality in which gatherings can exist in a variety of ways all at once? Let us remember and lift up the deep lived wisdom of the disability community for whom innovation has been the name of the game for generations. Let us learn from disability wisdom about emotional and spiritual resilience, being a problem-solver and creating community across geographic and spatial boundaries.


Ours is a tradition that revels in complexity and nuance. After the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, the rabbis, who were, at best, a tiny minority realized that the world they once knew was no more, gone overnight. How were they to move forward and preserve our ancient, precious tradition? Their solution was to make Judaism portable through the compiling and codification of the Mishnah and Gemara which we call the Talmud. Yet, the rabbis never forgot the world they once knew. Entire tractates of Mishnah are devoted to studying temple sacrifices. Entire portions of traditional liturgy are devoted to daily study of temple rites. Even as a new paradigm occurs, the old is not forgotten. Similarly, in our time, even as we yearn to return to our synagogues, houses of study and community centers, even as we yearn to enjoy Shabbat meals with others, even as we wonder what Passover will feel like this year, may we not forget the gifts newfound communal access and ways of thinking give us.

Kedoshim 5779

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.

Jewish Disability Advocacy Day 2019 Dvar Torah

I was privileged to deliver the following dvar Torah at Jewish Disability Advocacy Day 2019, February 26, 2019 in Washington, D.C.
Shalom friends! It is an honor and privilege to be with you all this morning as we gather for Jewish Disability Advocacy Day, a time for us as Jews who care deeply about the issues impacting all Americans with disabilities to make our voices heard. Rooted in the values that so animate our tradition—we’re all created in the Image of God, we all have inherent worth and value, we are here to lift up those legislative initiatives that will enable a greater number of Jews with disabilities to exercise self-determination and live full and rich lives, as we know we can. In this week’s parsha, Vayekhel, we are commanded to bring gifts for the building of the mishkan or portable sanctuary in the desert. We saw this idea a few parshiot ago, in Parashat Terumah as well. Why do we see this twice? Are we just recapitulating the building instructions for the mishkan? Perhaps. Or, perhaps we are meant to take something else from this repetition. Our rabbis and sages believed that there was no redundancy in the Torah. Why, then, does the Torah insist upon telling us again that we all need to bring gifts and exactly which gifts to bring?
Every detail of the mishkan is tended to just so. This communicates clearly to us that everything, down to the smallest detail, infinitely matters. God would not have a sanctuary without every detail mattering. Every person must bring their gifts because every person matters. We all bring those gifts, those talents that are irreplaceable and unique. Every community is the sum of its parts. People with disabilities have experienced incredible systemic and social exclusion. Our Torah reminds us that in a culture in which the gifts of some are valued over the gifts of others, all of our gifts matter, all of our wisdom matters, all of our knowledge matters and matters infinitely.

Tetzaveh 5779

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.

Emor 5776

This commentary was written in May 2016, in the Jewish year 5776.

Parashat Emor opens with a description of right priestly conduct. In Leviticus 21:17-23, we find a lengthy list of those Kohenim who have a mum—often translated as blemish which disqualifies them from sacrificial service. This list includes blind Kohenim, as well as Kohenim who have a limb-length discrepancy, those who are short-statured, those who have a broken hand or foot, those who have a visible disease, and many others. Such Kohenim must not “profane those places which God has made sacred.”

Though these Kohenim are barred from priestly service, they are not forbidden from eating sacrificial meat that was only permitted to them and their families, nor do they lose their priestly status outright. Nevertheless, this passage is jarring. Our Torah appears to be saying quite explicitly and without qualification that those who are tasked with public leadership positions must be absolutely and wholly able-bodied. In previous commentaries on this passage, I have written about the myriads of ways people have interpreted this difficult passage, as well as how I, as a blind rabbinical student grapple with its implications in my personal and professional life. And while it is important to begin a candid—and often immensely difficult and painful—discussion about the ways in which this passage still resonates, even with all of the incredible advances our society generally and Jewish community specifically has made over the many centuries since its composition, I am going to broaden the scope of my discussion this year a bit and talk about the implications of this passage in terms of how it relates to our very contemporary discourse surrounding those of us who are not “typically bodied” inhabiting public space.

When reading the list of Kohenim whose disabilities or physical differences preclude them from priestly service, a question which comes immediately to mind is why the emphasis placed on physical, visible difference? I believe the answer lies in the very nature of their status. Kohenim were tasked with the daily performance of the sacrificial service in the Mishkan and later the First and Second Temples. They were, essentially, the conduit between the Children of Israel and God. This fact alone lends itself, in my view, to two drastically different means of reading this passage. On the one hand, it could be read as God rejecting Kohenim with visible differences from God’s service, and that, personally, is not a God I wish to worship. On the other, we can take this passage and apply it inward—what is it about a Kohen’s role as a public representative that makes it such that we want to ensure that that individual’s body is what we would today perhaps call typical? What is it, in other words, about the presence of those who inhabit “atypical” bodies taking up space in public alongside their “typical” peers that makes us so uneasy?

It is convenient, perhaps, to notice that there are a growing number of folks with disabilities of many religious traditions in the clergy doing incredibly holy and sacred work, making our religious communities truly sanctuaries in which the Divine Presence can dwell. Though this shift in religious leadership is slow-going and involves incredible amounts of spiritual, emotional and physical labor, it can be used as proof, perhaps, that times are changing—that the ideas we have about leadership and bodies are changing—and that we can congratulate ourselves for our social progress. Without minimizing the incredible work that has happened before me—and the fact that I am humbly and proudly standing on the shoulders of giants for whom I have nothing but boundless love, respect and gratitude—I am deeply troubled to witness in recent weeks the fact that our larger social notions about bodies in public spaces are seemingly more entrenched and resistant to change than many of us would like to believe. We are seeing this most acutely and dangerously, in my view, in the relentless onslaught of so-called bathroom bills.

It is easy to fear and even vilify an entire population of people one has never encountered, especially when that population is relatively small, stigmatized and highly misunderstood. As those who have socially marginalized bodies begin to exercise our power, laying claim to what is rightfully ours—the right to be included in society as we are without fear, our existence interrupts many notions of what is or what should be, or results in subconscious fears surfacing that perhaps one would prefer remain buried. Further, many of us receive messages that tell us it is upon us to make those who are “typically bodied” comfortable with us—that it is us who must acclimate ourselves to a world not designed for us. The burden of proof is upon us to show them that we are just like them, that our lives, our ways of being in the world, our experiences of ourselves in our totality are not a threat. It is not upon the majority, in other words, to do a bit of internal reflection, work through the fears, the biases, the subconscious prejudices that emerge when in the presence or proximity of someone different from themselves—someone about whom they may have only learned to fear or even loathe. When your worldview is such that supposed deviance from the “natural order of things” is cause for existential angst, tolerance for those of us who are different in some way becomes an impossibility. For too many, this tragic lack of empathy becomes a life and death issue. And that is unacceptable.

This societal discomfort with “atypically bodied” folks in public spaces, including bathrooms, has a long history and is applied to many marginalized groups. Indeed, I regularly encounter people who subtly—and not so subtly—react to my presence with varying degrees of discomfort, fear and, unfortunately, even panic due to my disability. My body might look a little different, but my inherent humanity is not debatable. My experiences in this world might veer off the mainstream path, but my worth as a human being created in the image of God, as Judaism so beautifully and profoundly teaches is inherent and cannot be taken away. This applies to all of us who find ourselves on the margins and it is often so difficult to remember this when the going gets rough.

Though our parsha has some hard things to say about who is fit for leadership, I believe we can take this passage and think collectively about ways in which we can, through the work we do and the lives we lead, challenge its narrative. Though discomfort around “atypical” bodies is with us still, as more of us fight for our rights, forcing us to unlearn misconceptions we may have possessed, we will, with God’s help, plant the seeds which will result in radical change. May it be so.

Reasonable Accommodations Are A Torah Value

The Book of Exodus introduces us to Moshe, our tradition’s greatest prophet and teacher, who many understand to be a person who lived with a speech disability. In Exodus 4:10-16, G-d informs Moshe that he will lead the Children of Israel out of Egypt—from slavery to freedom. Moshe balks at this tremendous pronouncement. Who am I, he asks, to lead this people? I am slow of speech and slow of tongue. Perhaps Moshe was feeling self-conscious, not able to fully grasp his own potential and greatness. Perhaps he was feeling not up to the task because of his background, living as he had in Pharaoh’s palace.

G-d’s response is powerful in its own right, a direct response to Moshe’s most obvious fear. Exodus 4:11-12 “And the LORD said to him, “Who gives man speech? Who makes him dumb or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now go, and I will be with you as you speak and will instruct you what to say.” (Translation Courtesy of Sefaria).
As a rabbi and someone who is herself blind, I am often asked about the theology in this passage. Truthfully, for many years, I understood this passage quite negatively. Does G-d countenance ableism, the structural, systemic and institutionalized oppression that many people with disabilities encounter on a daily basis? If G-d made me as I am, and the world presents so many limiting barriers to people with disabilities, how can I connect to a G-d like that? Is that not a punishing theology?

In answer, one need only read on. Exodus 4:13-16 “But he said, “Please, O Lord, make someone else Your agent. The LORD became angry with Moses, and He said, “There is your brother Aaron the Levite. He, I know, speaks readily. Even now he is setting out to meet you, and he will be happy to see you. You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth—I will be with you and with him as you speak, and tell both of you what to do–and he shall speak for you to the people. Thus he shall serve as your spokesman, with you playing the role of God to him…”

Despite G-d’s faith in Moshe’s abilities and G-d’s willingness to offer what we call today a reasonable accommodation, Moshe demurs. Please, G-d, pick someone else! It is as if Moshe cannot internalize in his own soul what G-d is telling him. You are perfect, just as you are, because I made you in My image, just as you are.

I can empathize with Moshe’s mindset. As people with disabilities, far too many of us have been told no, you can’t do that, it’s not possible, it’s never been done before, and we often settle, grateful for what access we do have. That, however, is a false sense of gratitude, as though we must apologize for our very existence. For too many of us, with our histories of systemic exclusion in our Jewish communities, imagining anything different is too painful. Sometimes the barriers feel so formidable, and we’ve been told so often that we don’t matter, that we’re too difficult to accommodate that it is easier to walk away and disengage. What Torah are we losing, as am yisrael, when we turn our fellow Jews away? It is as if we take one look at a person with a disability and assume the return on investment, to borrow a term from business is low. But when we invest in all of us, as G-d demands of us, our spiritual return on investment will be so much greater.

G-d knows that Moshe is stuck as a consequence of the messaging he may have received and internalized, just like so many of us. I am the first blind woman in the rabbinate as far as I know, and I, too, find myself not believing things are possible to make accessible because of my own history of exclusion. Sometimes, the hard truth is that accessibility cannot be achieved. Many times, the missing ingredient is attitudinal and what is needed is out of the box thinking and a willingness to take risks.

Despite Moshe’s protestations, G-d knows that heis the right leader. No need to go consult anyone about cost or feasibility of a reasonable accommodation, I’m just going to go ahead and do what is right. Accommodations are foundational, not an afterthought. It’s a reminder to all of us that accommodations allow us to express our most authentic selves, just as G-d intends.

Open My Heart To Your Torah

Open My Heart to Your Torah.

On Shabbat Parashat Bo 5779, January 12, 2019, I found myself in shul, like I do every Shabbat, wishing Shabbat shalom to folks as I entered the sanctuary, wrapping myself in my tallit and taking out my Hebrew Braille siddur, just like I would on any other Shabbat. There was a bat mitzvah celebrated in the community which happens frequently enough of course. The bat mitzvah girl was poised, spunky, learned, and one of the most enthusiastic leyners and darshanits I have ever heard. Oh yeah, and she just so happened to be blind. In her drasha after Musaf, she joyfully and humorously quipped that in addition to her parsha being particularly lengthy, one of the plagues mentioned in Bo is chosesh, darkness. Is this a joke from HaShem, she gleefully mused and proceeded to give over one of the most beautiful and spiritually cogent shiurim I have heard on this topic.

I felt an incredible wash of emotions as I sat in shul that Shabbat, davening with more kavannah than I remember in a long time. When it came time to take out the Torah, it hit me. A blind woman would be leyning the entire parsha and haftorah from a Braille text! I barely kept my composure as we proclaimed that Torah came forth from Zion and the word of the Lord from Yerushalayim. Even now as I write, a week after the bat mitzvah, I find myself overwhelmed with emotion. You see, I have been yearning and praying for this day for a long, long time. From the depths I called out to you, HaShem, and you have answered me out of your great expansiveness!

As I studied for the rabbinate, I would frequently be asked about how a blind person participates in the Torah service. Does Braille trop exist, folks would ask. What about the issues around the halakhic requirement to read from the sefer itself? Do blind folks receive aliyot?

Blessedly, for at least the past 500 years, save for in those congregations, few in number which still hold by the Shulchan Aruch’s prohibition of giving blind men aliyot, blind people regularly receive aliyot. Thanks to the revolution that came about in Jewish communities and particularly in Ashkenaz as a result of determining that the individual receiving the Aliyah need not be able to read from the sefer itself, it was reasonably and appropriately determined that there should be no problem calling a blind person to the Torah.

The issue of Braille trop was another matter. Hebrew Braille, which is widely in use today was developed in the 1940’s and, save for the most basic punctuation marks, omitted cantillation, or trop. What this meant in practice was that if a blind person wanted to learn to leyn or chant Torah or haftorah, they had to do so by memorization exclusively. I can personally attest to the formidability of this task. Due to the assumptions made that because Braille is entirely horizontal, and thus unable to accommodate anything above and below a line, and that adding trop would increase the number of Braille characters in any given word as to make the utility of reading a text with trop impossible, it seems that it was decided early in Hebrew Braille’s usage that it simply wasn’t worth it. And, sadly, many of us, myself included, assumed that this was a sensible, if highly frustrating and inconvenient decision. As a rabbinical student, I frequently would be asked to brainstorm possibilities for developing Braille trop. I begrudgingly admit that as excited as I was at the prospect, the skeptical part of me, knowing how difficult learning dikduk—Hebrew grammar—was in Braille with all of the additional characters, didn’t really think that such a thing could come to fruition.

Baruch HaShem, there are those who took a different path, who didn’t assume it was impossible, who didn’t ask permission. Where there is a will, there must be a way. The bat mitzvah of Batya Sperling-Milner is, as best as we know, the first time a blind person prepared their leyning using Braille trop. Co-creating a Braille trop system! Not bad for a bat mitzvah!

What an incredible spiritual lesson for me and for all of us. I long felt like issues pertinent to blind and visually impaired accessibility fell exclusively upon me to solve. Though HaShem is infinite, we human beings are finite, and I would feel a sense of shame and dare I say even failure when I experienced fatigue, exhaustion, despair and overwhelm. This Braille trop system, the prototype for which I literally cannot wait to get my hands on is a tangible manifestation of the truth, so often forgotten, that the work is not upon me alone, and that others are just as passionate, just as driven and care just as deeply. I felt a jolt of electricity when I was enthusiastically introduced to an assembled crowd as the second person in the world to use this trop system. Ken Yehi ratzon! May it be so, speedily and in our days, amen.

The third and final significant challenge was halakhic. There are a variety of understandings of the role halakhah plays in our religious and spiritual lives in the Jewish community today. Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, with some differences surrounding process, hold that halakhah is binding upon us. As such, when we have a question about a matter of ritual law, such as the question of may a blind Jew read Torah for the congregation, we rely upon a variety of tools to discern an answer. One of the most formative and important things I learned in rabbinical school about what it means to be a good posek was that a posek must always remember the individual who stands before them and who is making a halakhic inquiry. We are never meant to rule abstractly. Rather, we must always keep top of mind that halakhah, which comes from the Hebrew root meaning to walk, is as much about how we internally navigate our world and our relationship with HaShem, the Holy One Of Blessing, as it is about how we externally perform our religious obligations. Further, the notion that a posek is inherently objective does not bear out and sociological factors frequently play a role in how decisions are made, as is borne out by how customs of various Jewish communities factored into teshuvot written by sages historical and contemporary alike. Svara, or moral intuition, also plays a significant role. Indeed, svara is of paramount importance, a good reminder and lesson for all of us in religious leadership today. I truly cannot think of an example better emblematic of the revolution that svara can bring to all of us.

I know that extensive halakhic research was involved in how this bat mitzvah proceeded. I resonated deeply with Batya when she noted in a video describing her preparations that it was so important for her to know that she was fulfilling a religious obligation. She was going to do it, and she was going to do it by the book, as it were. This extensive research has rendered a potential, life-giving pathway forward. Baruch… hatov v’hamativ. For those of us for whom halakhah is an important facet of our Jewish lives, and who know, even when it seems like this is far from the reality we experience, that halakhah can hold all of us in our wholeness, it is important to root ourselves both in our moral and spiritual intuition about the right thing to do as it is to find a way that our change will be one that lasts and is accepted by our communities. Though I have enjoyed learning so many new-to-me mekorot or rabbinic source texts as I delve into the halakhic issues at play, one source stands out in particular.

The Maseit Binyanim, R. Benjamin Aaron ben R. Avrohom Salnik was a Polish Talmud chacham who lived in the 16th and 17th centuries. His teshuvah is powerfully resonant today. He wrote his teshuvah after either becoming significantly visually impaired or completely blind, it is difficult for me to determine, but in either case he was significantly visually impaired. Though he writes specifically with reference to whether a blind person may receive an Aliyah, the ikkar of his teshuvah is that the anguish that a person with a disability feels when told no, you can’t do that when it comes to ritual participation is soul-crushing and that anguish must be taken into halakhic consideration. I, personally, can absolutely attest to this, and it is this consciousness that I pray I will always bring to my rabbinate and to the sensitivity with which I interact with others with disabilities, even and especially when I am presented with formidable halakhic challenges. I must ask myself, do I want to live redemptively? What are my values and how do they play out? And what does HaShem want of me in how I comport myself as a leader? I must always be able to answer thoroughly, intelligently, respectfully and with sensitivity. I may never fall back on tired excuses of I’m sorry, it’s just not possible.

Here is what the Maseit Binyanim so powerfully proclaims. May we internalize this Torah into our souls.
“[1] Many great sages have debated whether a blind person can receive an aliyah and read from the Torah, this one permitting and this one forbidding. And the gatherer of all the camps together, the one whose light leads the entire nation, the gaon and the greatest sage of his generation, Rav Yosef Karo, in his work the Beit Yosef, collected and gathered all the opinions and weighed and evaluated them, and came to the conclusion that it is forbidden, that a blind person is not permitted to be called up for an aliyah among those who are counted.
[2] And I said, “If the spirit of the ruler rises against you, leave not your place” (Kohelet 10:4), for you should not be cast off forever (Eicha 3:31). For from times of Avi Zanoach (Moshe, cf. Chronicles I, 4:18), the Torah has always been placed in a corner (accessible to all, see Kiddushin 66a), so that whoever wishes may come and take it. And even one mitzvah should not be negated.
[3] For behold, now in my old age, the sight from my windows has darkened, and my eyes have grown dim from sight (cf., Breisht 27:1). According to what the Rabbi (Yosef Karo) opined, I will be driven away this day from seeking refuge in the inheritance of the Lord (I Samuel 26:19), in the Torah of truth and of eternal life, that I shall not be included in the number of those who are counted to rise up (and read). Therefore, I said and decided in my heart, “God forbid that I should abandon the way of the tree of life, and from my youth I have grasped onto its branches, its laws, and its rule. Even in my old age I shall not cast it off. On its path I will tread.” And I will open with the matter of halakha, to see for what purpose the Rabbi has done such a thing to me. And behold, I will lift my eyes up to the high mountains, the ancient hills, and I will come out to the help of the Lord against the mighty men (Judges 5:23), I will prove and put forth my case… I will establish and “speak regarding Your laws in the presence of kings and not be embarrassed”. (Ps. 119:46)…


Can a Person Who Is Blind Receive an Aliyah?: A Teshuva of Maseit Binyamin

A Modern Midrash On Leah

Author’s disclaimer: Please note that what follows is a modern, exploratory and creative midrash, centering on Leah Immeinu’s narrative in Parashat Vayeitze which was originally written in 5777, was subsequently amended in 5779 and at the time of your reading may not necessarily reflect my current thinking and approach. In this midrash, I seek not to offer an absolutest reading or make factual claims–quite the contrary. Modern midrash is a spiritually creative, exploratory art, opening a door of possibility. The art of the modern midrash is about emotional, spiritual and psychological inquiry. My interest in writing was to explore Leah’s inner life and spiritual yearnings which is also as much about my evolving understanding of this episode in our Torah. In this piece, I imagine Leah practicing hitbodedut. When a person engages in the practice of hitbodedut, they are davka supposed to express the full range of their raw human emotion, which I try to do here as well.

Dear God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and my husband, Jacob,

I am in such anger and despair. Sometimes, I honestly don’t know if you are a God I can turn to in joy and sorrow. I am angry at you, which means I clearly care about you, but I can’t take the next step of imagining that you might care about me as I apparently care about you right now. I’m still puzzling that one out, and that matters for what I have to ask you next.

Why did you make it appear that I never was able to find satisfaction in the life I was dealt, in the cards I was handed? Why is it that when I am introduced, the only thing that anyone hears about me are that my eyes were weak? And why is it that in later tradition, my eyes are explained away as being weak because I cried and cried upon learning I’d have to marry Esau?
I am portrayed as a woman earnestly yearning for the love of a man whom I knew never loved me, no matter that I bore six sons. With each subsequent birth, my despair grows, and yet I never find the love I want. All that was important to record about me was these births and my attempt when naming each child to pick something that fit my emotional and spiritual state, which was one of great, even existential anguish. Here I am, hoping with each son my husband will love me and nothing ever changed, I fear. Interesting. No thought was given to my inner or spiritual life. I can’t see too well, but that male gaze is bearing down very hard on me, so hard I can feel it. Many people like me, who don’t see as well as others, speak about feeling the stares of others as they go throughout their lives. It’s not the stares of my family I feel—I feel nothing from them, only exclusion. I know a lot of people who are like me feel excluded from their families and God, that makes me feel such sorrow and heartbreak.

I don’t see as well as others. That’s always been true. And when the midwife discovered that my eyes were weaker than they should have been at birth, she told my mother that they should try to pass me off as sighted as possible because otherwise there was no reason for me to stay alive. So I have always, always, felt like I was at the bottom of a ladder I never created or consented to climb. The expectation was that if Rachel, my charming, beautiful younger sister was to land a handsome man, I’d marry him, too, because that was the best outcome they could possibly imagine. Nonetheless, I was not able to completely flourish in my society, and in our world, ability means everything. People don’t know what to do with people who aren’t like them, God. I don’t know why.
I thought you said something in the book you write about me, towards the beginning I think it is, though I don’t know for sure that every human being is created in your image. When you made such a statement, did you forget me? Sometimes I feel like everyone else but me was created in Your image, but I know that can’t be true, right?

So when I was supposedly deceptively married to Jacob that was to ensure my survival, literally. And I have to tell you, those signs Rachel gave me were really helpful. But I had to act like I wasn’t sad, didn’t know in the depths of my soul that this treatment is the exception, not the rule. That I might never feel so loved again. That hurts more than I can articulate.

Eventually, as you know, I bore six sons and a daughter, Dina, and that wasn’t enough. With each birth, I named my child something that reflected my deep yearning and seeking, both spiritually and also, more immediately, for my husband’s love. And I never got that. Hope would arise within me whenever I conceived, only to be dashed. God what is wrong with me? I always felt like no one in my family thought that perhaps I am a human being worthy of love and acceptance. Pregnancy was as close to another human being as I ever got. How sad for me and how utterly tragic.

I have had a lot of time to think about my life, now that my elder years are upon me. This world is such a cruel and unfair one, God. I am grateful that I found a way to empower myself in this world through giving birth to children, but the body you gave me never met man-made standards. Did I perhaps allow those man-made standards to dictate my worth? God, I know my worth to you is inherent, unconditional. Why do I struggle so mightily to internalize that?
I thought it was you who says don’t put obstacles before the blind. Those aren’t just physical, God. How many obstacles have I had to overcome, and none of them needed to exist? Just because I am a woman, just because my eyes are weak, did I have to bear these burdens? NO! My life means something!!! As I said before, I am grateful you gave me one redeeming feature, but come on! No one cared about my heart and soul. We all have feelings and desires you know.

Don’t you tell Moses—some distant descendant of mine or so I understand—that is you who creates deaf people and blind people, people who speak verbally and people who communicate in other ways? Don’t you say, without any question or hesitation that Aaron will speak for him, that Moses’ speech impediment was fashioned by you, that it is not something that will hold him back from leading our people out of Egypt where we sojourned and were later enslaved? You made me, too, God. My weak eyes are no punishment. They are part of me, but not all of me, a part that many so-called normal people allow to wholly define my life, because they cannot imagine living in this world as I do. I am so sorry for people’s narrowness of imagination and lack of generosity of spirit. I really am. I am grateful that you gave me a way out, God, a way to assure my status. But I do have to say—though my social status and survival were assured through my sons, I never was afforded a more nuanced understanding. I feel like I’m just the unloved one, yearning for love with every son she bears. That’s not me. I don’t want sympathy or pity. I want community. I want to be seen in my fullness; I want people to recognize me as a person, no different than they are. Don’t You uniquely stamp each of us so-to-speak—just like coins are uniquely stamped–because all of our neshamot are precious and matter to you? Even when other people treat some of us neshamot differently, we all matter to You, right?
But You aren’t doing anything to change how people think and act! Ok so you give human beings free will I get it. And I understand that they use that free will to conceal their own divine spark by acting in ways that aren’t aligned with how to treat people in this world. But how can I turn to you in times like this when I feel like nothing ever changes? It’s like what Shlomo HaMelech—I think he comes along a lot later—writes in Kohelet—there’s nothing new under the sun. Are humans always going to be so narrow?
I want to believe that you are always there for me, that you are a God of resilience that you side with the oppressed and that you don’t abandon me, though I certainly feel like you’ve hidden your face from me. Sometimes I do wonder, though, God. Being on the outside looking in, I get a unique perspective on how others behave and I get a good read on people’s characters. I’m trying to co-create a better future with you, God through figuring out what kind of person I want and yearn to be—someone who isn’t interested in superficiality, someone who tries to treat everyone with proper kavod—even my husband who I know doesn’t love me. That still cuts like a knife, God, but sometimes I wonder. Have you given me a gift? The ability to challenge the status quo? To move my family towards a better future?