Friday, February 8, 2013

Remove the Stumbling Block - A sermon for Jewish Disabilities Month 2013

Sermon for Mishpatim – Jewish Disabilities Month 2013
Rabbi David Kaufman
February 8, 2013

This week’s Torah portion is Mishpatim. Parshat Mishpatim contains many laws and statutes including the famous statement about damages, “An eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth,” which the rabbis come to understand to mean “the value of an eye for an eye and the value of a tooth for a tooth.” This Torah portion also contains laws about how to treat those in our communities who are less fortunate than we are and particularly, how to deal with those in our midst who are challenged to live normal lives.

Mishpatim reminds us (Ex. 22:20-24):

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me and my anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your spouses shall become widows or widowers, your children orphans. If you lend money to My people, to the poor who is in your power, do not act toward him as a creditor: exact no interest from him.

Remember that “you were a stranger.” The line is oft repeated in our tradition. Yet it means more than that. It isn’t that each of us was a stranger. The real force of the statement is that we were, are, and always will be strangers. We are forever strangers in a wilderness. For some of us, the challenge is greater than for others, but we all need help to get through the challenges in our lives and as we get older, those challenges that all of us will face will include disabilities.

“This month is Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month. According to the National Organization on Disability, 54 million Americans have some form of disability. That’s nearly one in every five Americans. According to the 2010 Census, one in 12 children in the U.S. has a disability; that means 5.2 million American children have a mental or physical disability. When you factor in friends, families, and community members, the number of Americans affected by disability issues multiplies exponentially.” (

While some of us have friends and family members who face or faced significant physical and mental challenges from birth, life will challenge all of us as we get older. Our eyesight and hearing fade along with our memories and physical abilities. Where once we took the stairs two at a time, for some, it is difficult or impossible to take them at all.

We cherish our independence, the ability to live alone, to travel alone, to open doors alone. Yet life sometimes makes that difficult.

Many wonderful institutions in our community help those facing physical and mental challenges overcome them.

Mosaic, Easter Seals, Variety and whole host of other organizations and agencies work to improve the lives of people with disabilities in our community. Too many of us think about these organizations as working for “them,” others who are not like us, when in fact, they are very much like us. “Remember you were a stranger.”

Proverbs 31:8 tells us, “Speak up for those who cannot speak…speak up, judge righteously, champion the poor and the needy.”

And in Leviticus 19:14, we find “You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind.” It seems easy enough to do. We tend to look at this verse, particularly the second part as if all we have to do is not go out of our way to make things difficult. Yet what is the verse really telling us? What happens if we see that there is or will be a stumbling block in their path? Is not our obligation to help them to avoid it?

This verse from Leviticus is a directive that is literally applicable on a playground. Children often treat those who are different in not-so-nice ways. They may well tease someone who is deaf by talking behind their back, by ridiculing and then acting as if nothing happened. They could well find it amusing when someone blind would be made to trip. One can envision these things. We may even remember seeing similar behavior on the playgrounds of our youth. Some of us may have acted to prevent these actions. Others in shame may recall participating in them or doing nothing to stop them.

Adults certainly can do this type of thing as well, but we learn over time that we ourselves come to be treated in the way that we treat others. In fact, one of the best measures of what kind of person we are is the way in which we treat those with less power than we have.

Our Tradition speaks of the deaf, the blind, those with speech impediments and those with learning disabilities and in every instance we are encouraged to help the person with the disability to overcome it.

We read in Deuteronomy 15:11, “If there be among you a needy person, you shall not harden thy heart, but shall surely open your hand.” It is a statement about giving to the poor, but just as certainly it is a statement about reaching out to lend a hand. It is a statement about our need not just to avoid placing stumbling blocks, but to look ahead and make sure that stumbling blocks are not already there. We need to actively help, not merely to avoid causing problems.

I came across this in an article in the Forward about disabilities in the Orthodox community:

About 10 years ago, Jason Lieberman stopped wearing tefillin. This was not an act of rebellion — Lieberman’s cerebral palsy simply made it too difficult for him to put them on. Seven years later, Lieberman, 34, who serves as treasurer of Matan, which provides Jewish education programs to special needs children, sought help from his extensive network in the Jewish community: Where could he find an occupational therapist who had experience in training disabled Jews to put on their own tefillin? The answers disappointed him. Two rabbis offered to give him a heter — a dispensation — so that he wouldn’t have to wear tefillin at all. Another suggested that he get someone else to put them on for him. That was exactly what he was trying to avoid. “I know I have the skills to do it,” Lieberman told a rapt audience of rabbinical students... at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, in New York. “I just need someone who understands how my body works, to teach me how to do it.”

Or how about these questions found in the same article:

What do you tell a disabled Jew who is concerned that the cane she needs in order to walk to synagogue during the Sabbath violates the prohibition on carrying items? What about a wheelchair? And can her husband push it without violating the proscription against work? If that’s a problem, what if the wheelchair is motorized with a pre-charged battery? Will she be violating the Sabbath ban on electricity?

We Reform Jews would not bat an eyelash at these things, we would say come however you are able, but in the Orthodox community you cannot simply ignore Halakhah.

Yet, too often we do place stumbling blocks and put forth insults because we are not conscious of the needs of those around us. We simply are unaware that we offend, cause discomfort, or even harm. Our access doors and aisles are not wide enough, our thresholds too high. Our ramps too steep or too narrow. Our texts too small. Our amplification too low. Our patience too short.

As a congregation, we have tried in recent years to be more accommodating, but our building is hardly completely accessible. Staff offices and meeting rooms are on different levels without an elevator and the most easily accessible doors are not opened by our buzzer, but require someone to physically unlock them. Our building renovation project will to no small extent address this sort of access issue.

Our Tradition teaches us that people who are disabled can do wonderful things, not only for themselves, but for our people. Someone who is impaired of speech can even speak as God’s own mouthpiece.

And Moses said unto Adonai: “Adonai, I am not a man of words, either in the past, nor now, since you have spoken unto Your servant; for I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue.” (Exodus 4:10)

After Moses questioned God about his difficulties with speech, God responded.

“And God said to Moses: Who gives man speech? Who makes him mute or deaf, seeing or blind?” (Exodus 4:11)

The answer in the Book of Exodus is God. Yet my friends, we are God’s instruments. Let us do our best to help improve the lives of all of those affected by disabilities.

Kein yehi ratson! May it be God’s will!