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We Are Not So Different, You & I

02/15/2019 11:15:38 AM

Feb15

Does Judaism discriminate against people with disabilities?

Of course, the answer is no. The Torah repeatedly cautions about loving the stranger, supporting the orphan, respecting the deaf and protecting the blind.

But one law seems off.

This week’s Torah portion Tetzaveh introduces us to the Kohanim, the priests who worshipped in the Temple. In another portion, the Torah rules about Kohanim with defects as follows: “Any man among Aaron the kohen's offspring who has a defect shall not draw near to offer up the Lord's fire offerings. A blind man or a lame one, or one with a sunken nose or with mismatching limbs; or a man who has a broken leg or a broken arm; or one with long eyebrows, or a cataract, or a commingling in his eye; dry lesions or weeping sores, or one with crushed testicles.”

Simply stated, a Kohen with a defect or disability was not welcome to worship in the Temple.

If this isn’t unfair and discriminatory, then what is it??

I once heard the following adaptation, based on a passage in the seminal Kabbalistic text called the Zohar, which sheds light on this:

Some souls are like the sun, and others are like the moon. The sun is a metaphor for ‘perfection’. Every day the sun rises and shines as brightly as the day before. It is highly predictable, always doing its job without a flaw. The moon, however, is a metaphor for ‘imperfection'. The moon is smaller than the sun. It waxes and wanes. Sometimes it shines brighter, other times its light is dimmed. There are days when the moon isn’t visible at all.

The same goes for human souls. Some souls are born to be perfect, like the tzaddik. Others, in fact most souls, are born to be imperfect. Their imperfections aren’t a reflection of anything negative about them, for this is how G-d created them.

G-d receives pleasure from the efforts of both the perfect and imperfect people. You see, there are two different kinds of pleasure. For example with foods: some foods are pleasurable because they are naturally sweet; others are pleasurable upon being seasoned and flavored and becoming transformed from something bitter into something tasty.

Both kinds of people are necessary in our world. The perfect tzaddik exposes us to the perfection of the Divine. The imperfect person portrays to us the realities of our world in which G-d is present but often hidden.

Now getting back to the Kohen:

A Kohen is a representative of the people. When he worshipped, his thoughts and activities brought blessings and achieved spiritual elevation for the rest of us.

The Temple was a space of perfection. It was grandiose; constructed to exact measurements; built from the finest materials and precious gems; the libation vessels weren’t allowed to be less than full. Everything was executed with meticulous precision and abundance, and it had to look clean and spectacular.

Thus, the Temple seemed as a fitting place to encompass the perfect people. Surrounded by the dazzling edifice, the Kohen was naturally reminded about the unblemished people of the community.

But what about the blemished and imperfect people? Who would look out for them, pray for them, and channel Divine assistance towards their precious journeys in life?

For this G-d had the perfect solution. He decided that the most precious souls of all, the blemished Kohanim, will be the ones to represent them. Their life of struggle and sacrifice was perfectly suited to nurture the souls of their imperfect brethren. Only they could be adequately empathetic and caring for the struggling Jew.

This is why the blemished Kohen didn’t worship in the Temple. Indeed, they did serve the people, but their important service was specifically performed outside the Temple, deep inside the dark and flawed world. It was only there that they could meet other imperfect people and be source of support for them.

As a Rabbi, it is my duty and privilege to stand in front of my Synagogue, guide my congregants and lead the services. But sometimes I wish I could step outside and hang out with those who prefer to remain outside the Sanctuary. Those who are inside are fortunate that they can appreciate the value of prayer and religious experience. But what of those who don't feel comfortable inside? How can I reach those who struggle with their faith or spiritual identity? Perhaps my own struggles could be a source of support for them.

On some level, we all have disabilities. Whether spiritual, mental, emotional or physical. No one that I know of is perfect. The only thing that makes a person with a physical disability stand out is that their disability is visible. Which really means that they get to be real and honest. Others might try to hide or ignore their disabilities.

This week at Beit David Highland Lakes Shul we are dedicating our Shabbat to honor Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month (#JDAIM19). It is no secret that as a society we have been challenged in fully understanding, appreciating and including people with disabilities. Only as recent as 1990 did the USA sign into law the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which prohibits discrimination based upon disability, requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities, and imposes accessibility requirements on public accommodations.

As Jews, we ought to be leading the way in showing how to properly include people with disabilities inside our facilities, programming and communities. When I invited Alan T. Brown to come speak to us on Shabbat morning, he asked if we have wheel-chair access to our bimah. Sadly we don't. Alan brought over a ramp which he will use on Shabbat. But I told him that we are immediately going to begin the project to install ramp access.

It is no coincidence that we are making this dedication this year. This year is a Jewish leap year, which means that both the solar and lunar cycles will become more aligned with each other. Using our above-mentioned metaphor, this year is the perfect opportunity for us to better welcome and include all kinds of people, no matter their differences or disabilities, whether they be suns or moons.

This Shabbat we will honor people with disabilities. We will pause to reflect on their amazing inner-strength and boundless determination. We will become humbled by their enormous spirits. We will thank them for the priceless life-lessons they teach us. We will become inspired by their heroism and sacrifices. And we will pledge to become more sensitive and inclusive.

Shabbat Shalom!

PS I borrowed the title from a lyric in Abie Rotenberg's masterpiece song Who Am I. You can listen to it by clicking here

Tue, November 12 2019 14 Cheshvan 5780