A Teaching On Parashat Emor and Pesach Sheni

A Teaching On Parashat Emor and Pesach Sheni

A Teaching On Parashat Emor and Pesach Sheni

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.

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.

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.