As we approach Yom Kippur we say, G’mar hatimah tova… May it be a good ending, as we leave Yamim Noraim and begin the journey of a new year… But life teaches us new meanings to old words and sometimes our defects may teach us with our blessings cannot.
Late one eve at the end of July, 2015, I felt a twitch in my lower back and assumed a pulled muscle. By Tuesday, I could not walk. This pain was of Biblical proportions taking over my very being necessitating emergency surgery. Then I had a scar, pain, strange sensations… and that some people looked away, while others offered comfort. Of course there are people here and not, who’s challenges are far more destructive than what I endured. No matter in which corner of our world we live, physical pain can break our bones and short-circuit our nervous system, but it is up to us if it will shatter our spirit. Ultimately, how we choose to confront our reality is more our choice than an edict from God.
Before there was a synagogue, there was a Tabernacle; before there was an ark, there was an altar; and before there were rabbis, there were priests. (Bamidbar 41). They alone were permitted to perform sacred acts to God, to purge impurity and heal disease. They alone blessed the people in God’s name.
“God spoke to Moses saying: No priest who is blemished shall make an offering to God… neither the blind, the lame, the halt, the hunchback, the dwarf nor one who is maimed or injured or diseased. No priest with such a defect is permitted to approach the altar” (Lev. 21:16-23). These verses disturbing. Does Judaism not teach rachmanut. Have we not learned from our rabbis that holiness is more than skin deep? Is it such a disgrace to be impaired or challenged? Can the Torah really mean that such defects make us less acceptable to God?
We find little comfort in the Talmud. (B. Bek.43a-b). There a priest is disqualified if his head is misshapen, if he is bald, if his teeth are missing, if his eyes are too weak, if his nose is too large, if his feet are too wide, if his skin is too black, or too red, or too white!
Maimonides (12th century rabbi/philosopher), explains that the priest is disqualified by physical defects not because God disapproves of them, but because we do! He writes in the Mishneh Torah. (Nesi’at Kappayim 5:2), “when the priest stands before the congregation to invoke the priestly blessing, any physical anomaly of his would be 1ikeIy to distract them. They would tend to stare at a missing finger, a disfigured eye, or discolored skin. This would have the effect of diverting their attention from the worship of God.” We tend to notice what is flawed. In our eyes, defects are unbecoming. But never in the eyes of God. Our defects may teach us what our blessings cannot.
Had our patriarch Jacob been a priest, after his wrestling match he would no longer have been allowed to approach the altar, for he was physically challenged and inwardly transformed. Several commentators observe (B.S. Jacobson, Meditations on the Torah, 41-42), his limp had the effect of deepening his empathy and compassion. As he limped to meet Esau, the old swagger was gone. The man who was so agile had now become more fragile. Jacob had often hurt others without feeling it; now he felt it with every step. No longer would be remain unmoved by his brother’s pain. What a birthright and a blessing could not teach him, Jacob learned from a limp.
Surely Moses, of all people, was without flaw or defect. As the Torah tells us more than once (Ex.4:10; 6:12,30), he was slow of speech. Ibn Ezra teaches that Moses could not pronounce words distinctly; Rashi suggests that he stuttered. “See,” God says to Moses (Ex.7: 1-2), “I set you… Pharaoh… but your brother Aaron will speak to Pharaoh.” Imagine this: a prophet proclaiming a message he cannot even pronounce.
Because our defects teach us what our blessings cannot. Moses, like Jacob, had something to learn from his disability. One called to speak in the name of God might easily forget that he is merely human. His fumbling words reminded him of his mortality, his imperfect humanity. Only the humblest of person could be trusted with the utmost of powers and would never mistake God’s voice for his own.
Jacob and Moses, each lived with a disability; one limped and one stuttered. One could barely walk; one could barely talk. Neither of them could have approached the holy altar, reserved for the flawless. Yet each of them came even nearer to God, not despite their limitations, but because of them.
Our lives are rarely as heroic or as inspiring. But we too have limitations, and obstacles to overcome. If it is not a limp or a stutter, then it is a disease or an illness, a cataract or tumor, a shattered arm or a broken heart. It is bereavement or rejection, a heavy burden or silent sorrow. Not one of us in this great multitude is as flawless as the ancient priests, not one of us is as brilliant, as fortunate, or as beautiful as we would like to be. Maybe we have been hurt by life in such a way that it is not the body, but the soul that limps from day to day. Some of us carry childhood scars inflicted by constant criticism and bitter rejection, and even some of us are tragically survivors of abuse.
Some of us feel unworthy of being loved; others cannot give love. Some of us are burdened by guilt; others are filled with rage. Some of us are consumed by envy; others are driven by greed. Some of us have forfeited our self-respect; others never acquired it. Some of us are battered by fear; others are buffeted by frustration and failure. Some of us are imprisoned by selfishness; others are enslaved by alcohol or pills. Some of us suffer heartaches because of our children; others are tormented by our parents, even if they are long gone. Inside some of us carry burnt-out dreams; others are haunted by fractured hopes and unfulfilled promises. Some of us are convinced of our worthlessness; others are persuaded of life’s meaninglessness. But, there is a profound meaning in the suffering we bring with us on Yom Kippur, if we transform that suffering into a more meaningful life.
I asked God for strength that I might achieve;
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health, that I might do greater things;
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
I asked for power, that I might have the praise of others;
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.
O God, no matter where on this globe we reside, we need You for courage, insight and endurance to respond to the challenges of life, so that we might survive, live, thrive, and perhaps even love and be loved in this New Year. Keyn Y’hi Ratzon – May this be God’s will.
Rabbi David J. Gelfand is the rabbi of Temple Israel of the City of New York, a member of the WUPJ International Assembly, & WUPJ North American Board, Co-Chair of the WUPJ Rabbinic Circle, and winner of the 2010 WUPJ International Humanitarian Award.