Sukkot 5773: Perfectly Imperfect
Several months ago, the board at Adas voted unanimously to create a task force dedicated to inclusion in our congregation. It would be a group that would study our building and the culture of our congregation to assess and make recommendations for how we can be more inclusive to those with various disabilities in our community. When the board took its unanimous vote, I realized that this was a great moment for me to raise my hand and insert 'something rabbinic;' something that would help the board and the congregation celebrate this step toward greater inclusion in our shul. I stood up and congratulated the board on its vote. I pointed out how, in the Torah, we are exhorted over and over always to remember the plight of the Ger, Yetom, v'Almanah--the stranger, the orphan, and the widow; that a truly sacred Jewish community is one that always remembers to care for the weakest members of the society, those who might not have the ability or recognition to speak for themselves. After I shared these words, I sat down, pleased with myself for thinking of this teaching on the spot.
Hardly skipping a beat, board member Judy Heuman, a special advisor on international disabilities rights at the State Department, and a leader on this new task force, raised her hand and very gently but firmly said, "I would respectfully like to take issue with the rabbi's teaching." She said that many people in the disabilities community are working hard to overcome the very attitude that the rabbi communicated: we do not seek to be treated as powerless. Rather, we seek inclusion and integration fully with all other members of society. There was nothing combative or angry in her tone. She was entirely kind and classy in her response. But make no mistake, I very clearly stood corrected! As soon as she spoke, it was instantly clear that she was so very right; I had been unskillful in my use of the tradition at that moment, and I clearly and publicly showed how much I have to learn about what inclusion and sensitivity on this issue is really all about.
Since then, I have done a lot of reflection on this matter. I have come to appreciate more deeply the paradigm shift that people like Judy are seeking to create in the world. In the process, my empathy not only for those with disabilities, but for all human beings has become deeper. And so today, I want to share with you some of the thoughts that Judy Heuman began for me. I will show you how a life lived with a spirit of inclusion and openness to imperfection is, in fact, the key to kindness, justice, wisdom, and happiness itself.
In the Book of Leviticus, there are all kinds of instructions about the animal sacrifices that the ancient Israelites had to bring before God in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. We are told, over and over, that the sacrifices had to be 'without blemish.' They could not be maimed or lame animals with any kind of defect at all. Not only that, the Kohanim, the priests who brought the sacrifices could have no blemish, or defect, or even any handicap at all. If a Kohen were a hunchback or a dwarf, or if he had a clubfoot or any such thing, he could not approach the sacred precincts at all with a sacrifice. In other other words, God demanded nothing short of perfection. When the Israelites went to see the sacrifices in Jerusalem, they saw only gorgeous animals and no one with any disabilities up there at the altar. Everyone and everything looked just right.
Troublesome? You bet it is. How, we wonder, could a God of kindness and caring be so callous and unwelcoming of imperfection, particularly in God's holy sanctuary? The good news is that our ancient rabbinic sages also noticed the offensiveness of this teaching in the Torah. In the Midrash, Rabbi Aba bar Yudan explains: "Kol ma shepasal hakadosh baruch hu babehema hichshir ba’adam." "Everything that God forbade us in the animal sacrifices, God permitted in each human being." In other words, while it is true that the offerings and the priests themselves involved with the ritual had to appear to be perfect, the Israelites themselves who brought their animals for the sacrifice to Jerusalem--of them God has no such requirement of perfection. In other words, the very perfection presented in the Holy Temple stands in contrast to the real world out here, where God expects none of us to be perfect. The only place free of blemish and disability is the place of our offerings and yearnings and prayers--the Holy Temple. Everywhere else in the world, we're all in it together, totally flawed, and utterly imperfect.
Why would Judaism set up this stark contrast between the perfect and the imperfect? The American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote that man, who "stands at the juncture of nature and spirit," is the subject of "...both freedom and necessity. On the one hand, he is involved in the order of nature and is therefore bound. On the other hand, as spirit he transcends nature and himself and is therefore free. Being both bound and free, both limited and unlimited, he invariably experiences anxiety."(n's gifford lectures, p. 210) This beautifully captures the wisdom of the Torah here. In setting up this ancient ritual of perfection, Judaism gave us a place to express the part of ourselves that is not limited by our physical bodies or our failing health. It gave us a place and a way to see how infinitely we matter to God, how high our human spirit can soar, despite our frailties and disabilities. It gave us a way to respond to that anxiety that Niebuhr mentioned in a way that affirms that there is something about our humanity, with all its flaws, that it is always, despite everything, mysteriously perfect.
I remember once hearing the philosopher Alan Watts teach about the ancient Chinese concept of "Li," which has no direct translation into English. Li, he explained, is the word that describes the quality of jade--when you look carefully at the stone, it has many natural marks, scratches and imperfections. And somehow, those imperfections are what make it so very beautiful--perfect in its very imperfection. I believe that this quality of "Li" captures what's really going on in this world, and the more truly we embrace the reality of imperfection, the more deeply we can come to know what real perfection actually means.
I once heard a story about a chief executive of a large company who was energetic and well-respected. But he had one embarrassing weakness: every time he came into the company president's office to give his report, he wet his pants! The company president was kind to him, and offered to pay for him to visit a urologist. The next time the executive visited the president's office, he once again wet his pants. The president asked, didn't you go to the urologist? No, the executive said. He was out. I went to the psychiatrist instead, and I'm cured--I no longer feel embarrassed." That's about the long and short of it: the greatest perfection in the world includes all possibility of imperfection.
All of these insights can bring us back to Judy Heuman's astute tochachah--her loving correction of my mistaken belief. She showed me how wrongly I had taught the Torah's insight about remembering the Stranger, the Orphan, and Widow. She showed me how this is not a paternalistic teaching about showing pity for the weak. Quite the contrary, it's an exhortation to each of us to remember that we, too, were once Strangers in Egypt! And that any moment, any of us can become a stranger, an orphan or a widow. You see, later, I watched Judy come and speak to our high school students on the subject of disabilities. She explained that the disabled aren't some poor subset of humanity. Rather, at some point in our lives, each and every one of us will have a disability if we don't have one already.
We are, in fact, all of us, disabled because we are limited, we are all disabled because we are physical beings, because we are human. It is in acknowledging the inevitability of our own disabilities that we all become so perfectly human together. This, of course, is the central idea of Sukkot: we are so joyful and spiritually perfect in a very temporary and imperfect Sukkah.
The Rabbi of Lelov once said to his Hasidim: "A man cannot be redeemed until he recognizes his flaws and tries to mend them. A nation cannot be redeemed until it recognizes the flaws in its soul and tries to mend them. Whoever permits no recognition of his flaws, be it man or nation, permits no redemption. We can be redeemed to the extent to which we recognize ourselves."(Martin Buber tales later, 187-188)
We all live in a culture that glorifies youth and perfection. How many lives are consumed with guilt and shame over the perceived imperfection of their bodies, over their advancing age, over their flaws and blemishes and diseases and disabilities? There is so much judgment and so much suffering over how much we feel we don't measure up to a standard of perfection--be it in our physical bodies, or in our careers or achievements or possessions.We're all too often very happy to give lip-service to inclusion in our society--to the handicapped, to the poor, to the elderly, so long as we try to convince ourselves that we are not them. But any culture of inclusiveness begins not just with task forces or policies or rabbinic teachings, but with our own recognition of our own imperfection. There’s a beautiful brachah, in fact, that we are required to say whenever we see someone with a visible disability: we say Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha’Olam, M’shaney HaBriot: Blessed are you O Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, whose creatures live as many different forms. In other words, perfection lies not in being free of disability. It lies in the multitude of ways we are-each and every one of us--abled and disabled. We cannot endeavor to create a society of perfect justice until we make it safe for ourselves and for others to be imperfect.
Rabbi Simcha Bunem famously required his disciples to carry two notes, one in each pocket. In the right pocket, the note should say, "Bishvili nivra ha'olam," "The world was created for my sake." In the other pocket, the note should read, "Ani afar v'efer," "I am nothing but dust and ashes." We human beings are funny creatures. A little lower than the angels, we are neither fully godly nor fully animalistic, but both at the same time.It is in living our lives, together, and open enough to this truth, that we can rise higher and higher in every generation--higher toward justice, and higher toward our fullest humanity, higher to happiness and ever-closer to perfection--even if we can never actually make it there fully. May God always bless us in our imperfection so that we may be a blessing to each other, and a light to the nations.