Bamidbar 5780

Bamidbar 5780

Parashat Bamidbar, which Jews the world over just completed, is chiefly concerned with an extensive census of military-aged men and a meticulous description of the manners by which each tribe camped and traveled. The parsha opens the fourth book of the Torah, known in English as Numbers owing to the opening census and in Hebrew as Bamidbar, or in the wilderness. Indeed, Bamidbar is not the only book of Torah whose name in Hebrew differs markedly from how later English translators named and understood it. Jewish tradition has focused a great deal on the literal and spiritual significance of being in the wilderness, which I feel is more relevant this year than perhaps it has ever been in our lifetime.

When the Jewish calendrical cycle was calculated, it was determined that Parshat Bamidbar would be read most years on the Shabbat before the holiday of Shavuot, as is the case this year. We are in the home stretch of counting the Omer, preparing for zman matan Torateinu—the time of the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, and we are, simultaneously, journeying in the wilderness, just as the Children of Israel are as our parsha opens. For those of us who have been counting the Omer, we are reminded, daily, of our eventual destination—revelation—and though the counting might give us some semblance of structure in a world in which time seems endless, without differentiation, we also must grapple with the uncertainty that being in the wilderness inevitably carries with it. Indeed, as we are later reminded in the book of Devarim/Deuteronomy, the Torah is not in heaven, but in our mouths to do it. Or, stated beautifully in a famous midrash describing Hashem’s revelation of Torah on Mt. Sinai, though revelation was a collective event—all souls were at Sinai, as one, to receive Torah—we all received Torah in a manner that we could understand. In other words, Matan Torah was a singular, national event and still, because Hashem understands humanity and the Jewish people to be each unique and irreplaceable, we each received the collective revelation in a manner that would allow us to understand and live it out in our individual lives and through how we show up in the world at large.

As we are reminded beautifully in the Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5, just as no two coins are alike, neither are two human beings. Being created in the image of G-d, the Jewish tradition teaches, is not about physical appearance at all. Rather, this revolutionary teaching about human dignity commands us to view ourselves as partners and co-creators with G-d in creating the world each day anew. Indeed, our dynamic relationship with Hashem is borne out each morning when we say the Yotzer Or bracha, the opening passages of the daily morning liturgy.

Our actions matter deeply. Hashem has entrusted us with a spark of divinity within. The Torah is not in heaven, but in our mouths to do it. We choose, multiple times a day how we are going to actualize or conceal that holiness with which we’ve been gifted. Jewish tradition also places a premium on human responsibility and the need for teshuvah for mistakes large and small. In a world in which it is far easier to cast blame upon our adversaries, engaging in tremendous acts of mental and emotional manipulation and gymnastics to do so, Jewish tradition demands of us radical soul accounting, leading to physically making amends with those we have harmed.

We are in the wilderness, and the wilderness within which we find ourselves is both a collective experience and a deeply individual one. Only this time, the individual wilderness is not so that we might uniquely understand this period of profound rupture. Rather, our individual wilderness is intimately related to our personal circumstances—our health status, our economic position, our employment prospects, our class, our racial and ethnic background, our ability status. And in this moment, when many wish to proclaim the collectivity of the moment—we are in this together and we’ll get through it together—a desperate act of grasping for comfort—we are obscuring the many ways in which no, we are not in this together. Yes, we have all experienced a prolonged period of isolation. For some of us, prolonged periods of isolation are normal, not an aberration. Yes, we are collectively experiencing instability. For many of us, instability is indeed the only thing that remains consistent. Truly, instability and radical uncertainty are always thrumming in the background of our lives but for those of us who have lived with relative privilege and thus relatively sheltered lives, this may have been the first time we have had to grapple with our impermanence. We strive for uniformity as a means of deep human solidarity, as a means of trying to make order out of chaos. Human beings are nothing if not creatures who yearn for meaning, to connect to something or someone much larger than ourselves. This moment has been for many a profoundly transcendent one. We are recognizing the limits of individuality and the importance of human community, even at a distance.

Yet, we must strive, always, to decenter ourselves. Put another way, we tend to imagine ourselves as the normal, the typical and all others as deviating from that. This sense of ourselves too often during this time has manifested in the ways we speak about others experiencing this moment. The wilderness is not a uniform experience. Too often, we conflate the notions of uniformity—all acting and being the same—with unity—showing up on behalf of one another, not obscuring our individuality but deeply committed to honoring each of our individual journeys. Chasidic thought speaks often about achdut—spiritual unity. Indeed, each of our chagim—pilgrimage festivals, of which Shavuot is one—is about unity in the deepest sense. Unity is not uniformity. We received the Torah as one, but we did not each receive a carbon copy of revelation. The revelation we received was given to us in a manner that would penetrate our inner most essence.

Though the wilderness in which we presently find ourselves is vastly different, our individual and collective responses, I believe, must be guided by the paradox I have been describing. We are uniformly going through a moment of great rupture, but we are each uniquely experiencing it. If we are to truly act as partners and co-creators with Hashem in re-creating a more abundant future for us all, all of us irreplaceable, all of us inherently valuable, we must do so in a manner that honors our individuality and does not shy away from or explain inequities and disparities which we know have been present for generations. Rather, boldly and humbly, we must live out the radical implications of being created in the Image of Hashem through the choices we make each and every day towards the creation of a more abundant society for us all, which places kavod habriot, human dignity at its center, along with valuing the lives of all living beings who call our holy planet home. May it be so.

Emor 5777

Author’s note: This commentary was written in May, 2017, in the Jewish year 5777 and was significantly updated in 5779.
The LORD spoke further to Moses: Speak to Aaron and say: No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God. No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified: no man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long; no man who has a broken leg or a broken arm; or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf, or who has a growth in his eye, or who has a boil-scar, or scurvy, or crushed testes. No man among the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the LORD’s offering by fire; having a defect, he shall not be qualified to offer the food of his God. He may eat of the food of his God, of the most holy as well as of the holy; but he shall not enter behind the curtain or come near the altar, for he has a defect. He shall not profane these places sacred to Me, for I the LORD have sanctified them.” (Leviticus 21.16–23 JPS)

Parashat Emor (Leviticus 21-24) contains what many have dubbed this year in the commentaries I’ve read particularly as one of the Torah’s most disturbing passages. In Leviticus 21, we are informed that any Kohein who has a mum—often translated as blemish but which can also refer to any sort of disability or physical abnormality—is barred from serving in the Temple. Though kohanim thus barred are permitted to eat of the sacrificial meat, they are not permitted to go behind the curtain or approach the alter because by so doing, they will profane those places which God has made sacred.

After reading such a profoundly disturbing passage, it is quite understandable to ask why the Torah includes such painful, hurtful and exclusionary words. After all, this is not the only difficult text we find in Leviticus to our modern sensibilities. This text cries out to me, with profound pain and existential anguish—darsheini!—explain or interpret me. It is my deeply held belief that as Jewish communal leadership slowly begins to reflect the true diversity that is the Jewish people, we will each benefit immensely from the Torah of leaders with disabilities and others to which we previously would have been denied access precisely because positions of leadership—lay and clergy alike—were barred to us.

The natural inclination, when reading a passage such as this to ask why the Torah would include something so painfully alienating and disturbing for many of us is quite understandable, and that question does not interest me at present. I am more drawn to the question of what—given this passage is in our Torah, and given that many of us encounter it annually, what are we going to do with it? The reasons why the Torah included these prohibitions offered up by numerous contemporary and ancient commentaries I have read are profoundly dissatisfying and in many cases add to the pain and discomfort. There’s no way of getting around the starkness. Attempting to explain it away might make us feel better about its presence, and indeed, I have come to deeply believe that for Jews with disabilities and many others, unearthing messages in this text that apply to our lives is a subversively necessary act. As my teacher, colleague and friend, Dr. Rabbi Julia Watts Belser eloquently reminds me, when Emor comes around every year, we hear the Torah telling us a truth that is deep in our bones, a truth about the world in which we live with it’s half-baked, snap judgements about others based on appearance alone and the narratives we love to craft about those whom we fear or simply don’t want to know. . As our world becomes increasingly visual and increasingly uninterested in holy pauses to get to know others, or even in slowing down for the extra moments it takes a person with a disability to navigate a world which structurally disadvantages them, this truth rings even louder in my ears.

Throughout subsequent halakhic literature, we see the prohibitions of this text mitigated and qualified, and we see a clear line of reasoning pointing to the assumed natural inclination to stare at that which is different. The distraction that accompanies the presence of one whose body is unlike our own might mean that we are not able to direct our hearts towards our religious obligations. The challenge, then, is placed upon the community to hold its discomfort and anxiety about that which it does not know or understand. Just as people with disabilities are excellent innovators by dint of having to navigate a society human beings built to advantage some over others, so, too, are we excellent managers of the anxieties and discomforts of others. Ask around and you will surely get a wide array of strategies, some conscious, others subconscious that disability communities have developed to navigate that omnipresent elephant.

Often, we are inclined to either spiritualize this passage or thank God that we live in a time now in which discrimination of this sort is no longer commonplace. If only that were actually so. I am profoundly committed to the inner life and a life of heartfelt spiritual practice. Our Torah contains infinite opportunities and pathways for us to grow spiritually, emotionally, intellectually and religiously. However, thinking about the named disability groups as metaphors leads us down highly problematic paths. Those who do work at the intersection of disability activism and justice work, both in secular and religious contexts rightly bristle at the metaphoric use of disability because the stigmas attached to such metaphors—lame, deaf and blind come immediately to mind—are stigmas that are long-lasting and are nearly impossible to wholly eradicate. I still cringe when I hear this kind of language nearly every day, and I find myself despairing of there ever being a culture shift. Our tradition radically and boldly teaches us that we are all created b’tzelem Elokim, in G-d’s Image, and we are all inherently valuable and worthy of existing on this holy planet of ours. Unfortunately, we too often fail to live that value out when it comes to individuals with disabilities.
We might not think twice before calling something so lame, or asking why you’re turning a blind eye to something, but if we take but a second and think about the words we use, words which, particularly when they come from leaders matter greatly, we will hopefully come to realize that the metaphor we are employing is a profoundly negative, demeaning and disempowering one, ascribing an inherent negativity to disabled embodiment. How much of that assumed negativity is rooted in our own fears of our ever-changing bodies?

Leviticus 21 asks us to begin to challenge notions of normativity that we all, despite how far we have come in the past decades, still harbor. And the work is work we all must do, regardless of ability status. Simply living with one’s own disability or disabilities does not absolve one from the hard work of unlearning prejudicial beliefs about other disability groups. We can all perpetuate ableism, whether we ourselves are disabled or not.
Instead of getting hung up on why our Torah includes this passage, let’s use Leviticus 21 as a charge to each of us. The Torah is not in heaven but in our mouths to do it. So what are we going to do with it? Are we going to allow the Torah to remind us, no matter how uncomfortable it feels, of the truths in our world–that to inhabit an atypical, non-normative body means one is constantly navigating the anxieties and judgements projected upon it? How might our Torah’s charge here call us to live out our mission to be an or l’goyim? Bereshit calls us to remember that we are all created b’tzelem Elokim. Vayikra challenges us to live that out wholly and radically. If Torah is truly a Torat emet and a torat chayyim, and if we want to be in genuine and grounded relationship to and with it, we cannot only latch onto the things that we like. We must also allow ourselves to be met, face-to-face, panim-al-panim, with those dark corners of our own neshamot we’d prefer to keep hidden. We must do the cheshbon hanefesh required so that we might live our lives and treat everyone we meet with the knowledge that we each carry a spark of divinity within.

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.

Vayakhel 5779

This drasha was delivered at Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandrea, VA, March 1, 2019/25 Adar I, 5779

Shabbat shalom! It is my honor and privilege to be with you this Shabbat. I wish to thank the Beth El Hebrew Congregation Inclusion committee as well as Rabbi Spinrad and Cantor Kaufman for welcoming me into your community this weekend. Our Torah portion this week, Parashat Vayakhel, meaning and he assembled, or he gathered together, largely concerns itself with recapitulating the building of the Mishkan or tabernacle, to which we were first introduced in Parashat Terumah several weeks ago. Jewish commentators have noted that the Torah devotes some 400 verses to the construction of the Mishkan. For many commentators, nothing in the Torah is superfluous or redundant. Why, then, does the Torah devote so much space to each and every exacting detail of the Mishkan’s construction, down to the smallest, seemingly least significant detail? It is commonly understood that the Torah here is teaching us a profound spiritual and moral lesson. We care about every detail because every detail matters. We read these Torah portions every year not just because every detail of the building of the Mishkan mattered at one particular time and in one particular cultural and religious context, but because it, though seemingly far removed from our modern Jewish lives and experiences, matters today as well. Though we no longer have a portable sanctuary accompanying us during our wanderings in the desert, and though the Temple no longer stands in Yerushalayim, our Torah’s instructions concerning the fashioning of our portable sanctuary, our dwelling place for God contains much wisdom for our daily lives and our collective experience as Jews.
We are concluding Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month, annually observed in February, though its imperatives extend all year. Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month is a time when Jewish communities globally take stock of where they are in terms of any number of metrics related to disability, whether that is on an individual congregational level, or whether that is with regards to inclusion efforts within larger organizations. This weekend’s theme is all about building an inclusive community in the big tent sense of the word—encompassing disability, of course, but also seeking to take the lessons gleaned from years of work in the disability space and broaden their application to many other areas and groups who may feel their voices aren’t being heard and their unique needs aren’t recognized. Parashat Vayakhel provides us with a blueprint for how we as individuals and communities might begin to shift our paradigms and culture around what building inclusive community truly means and entails.
Our parsha spends significant time describing the beautiful gifts that the Children of Israel bring for the Mishkan’s construction. Everyone whose heart so moved them, who was skilled in a particular area, brought that gift, that skill, that talent, to the construction of the Mishkan. Many of these skills are named, which signifies to us how crucial they truly were. Bring the best of who you are and what you can offer to this holy effort, our Torah proclaims.
Typically, when we think about building inclusive communities, though this is frequently unconscious, we imagine a norm that we are going to have to deviate from, as if there is an us and a them, and though the them might consist of folks who are the us, we forget they are the us because we build communities that center ourselves and folks like us. I believe that this is simply a byproduct of how we humans tend to operate and function in this world. Our awareness is naturally limited by our life experiences and so, when we think about the kinds of groups and gatherings we wish to be a part of, we tend to congregate with folks like us. The us, then, becomes the default norm, the them are outside of the camp, the strangers our Torah commands us to love for we were once strangers in Egypt. This attitude towards inclusion tends to manifest itself in such ways as thinking only about physical accommodations—the ramps, the alternate-format siddurim, the hearing-assistive devices—all of which are fundamental and essential ingredients—but tends to omit those things that aren’t as tangible. Are we creating a welcoming atmosphere, in which the presence and gifts of all are welcomed and embraced? How can we even begin to think about creating a welcoming atmosphere? It feels like quite a daunting, overwhelming, seemingly endless task. And given that, as our Mishnah reminds us in Masechet Sanhedrin, each person is unique unto themselves, how do I know if what I think of as a welcoming atmosphere is welcoming to someone else? How do I navigate the tensions that inevitably arise, the feelings of invisibility that emerge when one group’s needs are placed above another—or, perhaps more importantly, are perceived as such?
Perkei Avot, the Sayings of our Fathers, which is a tractate of the Mishnah or rabbinic oral law and is frequently studied teaches us that though we may not complete a task, we are not free to desist from it. Building inclusive communities in which the gifts, skills and talents of all are cherished takes hard work, and the work is often messy. It does not always bear fruit in the short term, but the long-term investment we make nets us amazing returns. How do we do this transformational work when we might feel like the odds of success are stacked against us and the possibility of failure or perceived failure feels right around the corner?
We must shift the paradigm we use. We live in a culture right now in which urgency feels acute, in which the pressure to get it done and get it right yesterday bears down upon us. And this is quite understandable. For too long, folks on the margins of Jewish community and of our society at large have been excluded. Gradual, incremental shifts sound, often, like an excuse to bide people more time, or like a desire to keep the status quo unchanged. Incremental shifts feel like too little, too late.
I resonate deeply with those who feel they have waited long enough, who feel that their and our communities haven’t wanted their gifts, their talents, their souls, and now that they are starting to do that work, it feels hard to excitedly jump in with both feet. My life experience, in rabbinical school and in general, has taught me that perhaps the most important ingredient in building truly inclusive communities, even more important and lasting than all of the best practices is the genuine, authentic, mutual relationship-building. When we show up in our Jewish communities and in our lives as authentically as we are able, demonstrating a true desire to get to know those who are unlike us as the unique and holy individuals they are, without pretense, our actions start a ripple effect. Just as all of the Children of Israel were commanded to bring their gifts, as their heart so moved them for the building of the Mishkan, we, too, are all needed to affect a lasting change in our communities. Naturally, we cannot expect one individual to do the holy work of showing up authentically and building those mutual, authentic relationships single-handedly. That task is all of ours. Taking a genuine interest in another human being, beyond what they can do for us feels so small but can truly make a huge difference. Even a simple hello at Kiddush or at Friday night oneg means a lot. Feeling like you matter, like you are heard, seen and appreciated, not feeling like you don’t belong or are out of place matters profoundly. It isn’t about liking everyone or getting along with everyone. It’s about each of us, bringing the best of who we are and what we have to offer to make our sanctuaries places in which HaShem’s presence can truly dwell. It’s about radically and deeply living out one of our Torah’s most famously oft-repeated teachings, that every human being is created in the image of God and carries a divine spark within. Do we want to conceal that holy spark through how we show up in the world? Or, do we want to use our God-given free will to reveal increasing light and holiness into our world by making manifest and embodying our Torah’s directive towards us? Living out deeply our Torah’s teachings is a practice. It is far from easy and feels increasingly complicated in our world today. Which means that it is even more essential than it has ever been. Rooted in our tradition’s call to us, let us strive ever always to build sanctuaries in which the gifts of all are welcomed, desired and wanted.

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.

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.

High Holidays Disabilities Inclusion Best Practices Webinar for Jewish clergy and educators