Kedoshim 5781

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.

A Reflection For The Three Weeks 5780

With every passing year, the enduring wisdom and beauty of the Jewish calendar never ceases to surprise me and give me newfound insight. I’ve been thinking these past few weeks about the upcoming period of The Three Weeks, a period of collective mourning for the Jewish people which begins on the 17th of Tammuz and ends on the 9th of the month of Av. The 17th of Tammuz is observed as a minor fast day and Tisha B’av as a full, twenty-five hour fast. Tisha b’Av is the date on which we mourn the destruction of the temples in Jerusalem—the first of which was destroyed in 586 BCE and the second was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. Additionally, Tisha b’Av commemorates numerous other tragedies which have occurred throughout history. It has become customary in some circles to refrain from travel, making significant purchases (particularly during the 9 days leading up to Tisha b’Av itself) as well as refraining from making large, significant decisions. Put simply, our tradition understands this period to be one of travail and trial.

For many, The Three Weeks is a time in which they experience a lot of disconnection. What does it mean to mourn the destruction of the Temple when I may or may not pray for its restoration? Observing a myriad of mourning customs—refraining from haircuts, listening to music, refraining from celebrating—in the heat of summer—also feels hard to find meaning in if a person’s life is so different from that of their and our ancestors.

This year, I am noticing a tremendous difference in how I am connecting with this time. I am feeling called to go deeper into my lineage, to understand the wisdom of our rabbis and sages who crafted our calendrical cycle and who knew that even in the best of times, having a contained period of collective grief is essential. If we are not allowed to grieve, or are unable to grieve, we cannot then begin to build up our resilience. If we cannot feel fully the emotion coursing through our veins and do so in a safe container, we cannot go out into an often hostile world with a sense of equilibrium, mission and purpose. In her beautifully captivating book, See No Stranger, author and activist Valerie Kaur repeatedly asserts that for those of us who are not a part of the dominant white, Christian, able-bodied culture, we are conditioned to feel strange to ourselves and estranged from ourselves, never at home in our deviant bodies. I would argue that this applies to us even if we or our ancestors have assimilated, wholly or in part into whiteness over time. Our rituals, lifeways, mores, ways of showing up and being in the world are stigmatized, mocked, misunderstood. And, too often, fear leads to loathing leads to violence, as Kaur painstakingly catalogs through the prism of her experience as a Sikh and the experiences her community continues to endure in America, violence which too few of us even knew was happening.

We are living through a time of profound rupture and destabilization. Our people have traversed this road numerous times and in numerous places. And they knew, and we know in our bones in a way many of us never knew before, that a container for holding all of the rage, all of the pain, all of the tears and sorrow is crucial. Our tradition has always provided this container but too often, when these weeks would come, I would engage in the motions but I never felt viscerally connected. I might feel a flicker here and there on Tisha b’Av itself, and I always understood the utility of national mourning, but not until this year do I understand it on a much more intimate level. Our tradition understands that grief is not linear. Many of us are experiencing what many call enfranchised or recognized losses—the loss of a loved one G-d forbid—the loss of a job and a sense of meaning, and many of us are experiencing ambiguous loss—canceled travel plans, wondering when we will ever see our friends and family, life goals put on hold. And none of us knows when this time will end, may it happen speedily and in our days. May these Three Weeks of sacred container allow us to open ourselves even more to an inner process of working through that which keeps us in narrow places and may we emerge into the seven weeks of comfort and consolation resourced, knowing that we have created a container of safety and peace for ourselves, even if it is only with ourselves.

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.

Behar 5779

Parashat Behar, our Torah reading for this week, introduces us to the Shmita year. Every seven years, Leviticus/Vayikra instructs us that the land must lie fallow—no agricultural or food production is permitted and there are a number of other restrictions put into place as well. The number seven holds great significance in Jewish tradition—we are commanded to rest on the Shabbat or the seventh day and, here, the parallel between our need as human beings to rest and the need for the land to rest is striking and profoundly countercultural. In a capitalist system which correlates human worth with human productivity, consequently deeming any human being whose body is incapable of the kind of unsustainable production our culture demands inherently dispensable, inherently unworthy and completely lacking in value, our Torah offers us a blueprint for what a radically liberatory, egalitarian system of rest and rejuvenation could look like. Recognizing that no human being, no animal, and no part of the land, upon which, our portion tells us later, we are strangers and sojourners with God, not owners outright can produce without ceasing, guidelines are put into place enabling us to shape a society in which the Shmita year is taken seriously. Yet, in the world as it is, the Shmita is an incredibly difficult mitzvah to observe. How might a commandment prohibiting food production, for instance, negatively impact those most viscerally impacted by rampant structural and social inequality? If a person cannot produce their own food, how are they supposed to sustain themselves and their families? And if they have not been able to store a year or two’s worth of food because they are living month to month, where does that leave them? In many ways, preparing, saving and storing for the future are luxuries, luxuries many in our own country do not have access to.
If we are to take seriously the Torah’s mandate to allow the land to rest, just as human beings are required to rest, we must take seriously the fact that in order to put this into practice, we are required to radically rethink and reconstitute our very social structure, a social structure which privileges some over others, and in which resource distribution and acquisition are wildly unequal. What might it look like for those of us with much to take seriously the Torah’s mandate to create a social system which allows all to survive, all to thrive? As we become intimately familiar with the reality of profound, systemic social and economic injustice through our work in the world, it is easy to despair of sustainable change ever coming. The status quo feels so intrenched. Yet, in this week of Behar, in this week in which we are hearing and reading the laws of the Shmita year, let us take some time to think about the actions, no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential we can each take to do what tikkun/repair we are able to create a world in which all are able to thrive, a world which is truly a dwelling place for the Divine.

Pesach 5779

One of the central obligations of Pesach, as we read in the Haggadah is that we each, individually, have the obligation to see ourselves as though we ourselves went out of Egypt. The story of the Jewish people’s liberation, then, becomes a collective, national retelling beyond time, space and generation. Not only did our ancestors come out of Egypt—Mitzrayim, but so, too, do we every year. Indeed, our rabbis and sages placed such importance on the Jewish people’s remembrance of Yetziat Mitzrayim—the Exodus from Egypt—that it is mentioned twice daily in traditional liturgy, on every Shabbat and holiday during the Kiddush blessing sanctifying holy time, and, in the most traditional circles, it is mentioned daily as part of what are known as the Six Remembrances—six things that Jews are commanded to recall every day of their lives.

Our going forth out of Egypt is also spiritually understood as a practice of seeking to liberate ourselves from narrow places that constrain us. Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word meaning Egypt is derived from the Hebrew root for narrowness. Seeing ourselves as though we, too, went out of Egypt thus is understood by Chasidic and other mystically-inclined commentators as inviting us on a journey to free ourselves from those narrow places in our lives that constrain our sense of self-worth or make us feel limited, blocked, or otherwise unable to move forward. Put another way, the stuckness that so many of us wrestle with is seen spiritually by many of our sages as a narrow place that we are invited and encouraged to see ourselves emerging from. Every year, this obligation remains because our tradition understands and knows that liberating the self from that which makes us feel stuck is not a one-time thing but an ongoing, often painful and slow-going process.

The Piaseczna rebbe, who is most commonly referred to as the Aish Kodesh—Holy Fire and was the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto wrote beautifully about this in his book, Derech HaMelech, which is a series of sermons or drashot. He invites us to think about the obligation we each have to see ourselves as though we, too, went out of Egypt first as a call to examine ourselves as who we truly and authentically are, and once we understand deeply what it is we are wanting from life and what it is about ourselves that make us shine, then, we are able to truly fulfill this most important of Pesach commandments.
Those of us who are engaged daily in working towards justice often experience a sense of diminishment or burnout, as though the change we so long for will never be realized. Sometimes, we might feel like the work isn’t bearing fruit and as the world around us feels increasingly harder to live in, it is easy for despair to become all-consuming and unrelenting. Even amidst the narrowness, Pesach offers an opportunity to step back and recharge, to reexamine anew who we are and why it is that we care so deeply about our work. What is it deep within our own souls and selves that calls us to this work, even and especially when the road is filled with boulders and it feels like liberation is further away than it has ever been?
As we conclude Pesach and celebrate the splitting of the Yam-Suf—the sea of reeds, which enabled our ancestors to cross on dry land towards liberation, may we seek to embody the liberatory posture we wish for the world.

Shemini 5779

In our parsha this week, Parashat Shemini (Leviticus 9-11), we have one of the most famous episodes in all of Torah. Aaron, the High Priest and brother of Moses, has four sons, and two of them—Nadav and Avihu—priests in their own right—approach the altar and make an offer which G-d does not command. As a result of offering this strange or alien fire, as the Torah describes it, Nadav and Avihu die. Why, commentators ask, would death be the punishment for offering something that wasn’t commanded? Couldn’t one argue that their desire to offer sacrifice, to come close to G-d, is emblematic of their spiritual fervor and religious commitment, or commitment to sacred service? It feels like the punishment here not only doesn’t fit the crime but is way out of proportion to it.
Some commentators note that when you come too close to something, it can be dangerous, literally and figuratively. Put starkly, if you get too close to fire, as Nadav and Avihu did here, you will get burned. But beyond the obvious, there is much to be said for how easy it is to be burned out—pardoning the turn of phrase there—when we dedicate ourselves utterly and wholly to our work and don’t take time to care for ourselves in the ways we need to. Though there is much we might want to question about Nadav and Avihu’s treatment here, there is also much wisdom in the idea that we must find a way not to become so subsumed by our work, by our commitments, by always trying to do more, by never feeling like we’re doing enough and end up profoundly burned out emotionally, physically, psychologically and spiritually. May Nadav and Avihu’s story be a cautionary warning to us and remind us of the critical importance of taking time to tend to our own souls and nourish ourselves for the long hall.

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.