Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Chaos Theory and Wilderness Reality / Parshat B'midbar

Chaos Theory is a branch of Applied Mathematics. The core insight of Chaos Theory is that small changes (or turbulence) in the initial conditions of a system can result in enormous and diverging differences in outcome that, although determined by the initial turbulence, are not predictable. In 1972, mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz published a seminal paper in the field, whose title encapsulates the fundamental realization of Chaos Theory: Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil set off a Tornado in Texas. Chaos Theory has applications to physics, economics, microbiology, meteorology, politics, and even philosophy. It’s also a pretty good model of our lives.

Our lives are chaotic processes in the mathematical sense. Small changes beget unforeseen transformations and even violent eruptive changes. If we are pleased with the outcome we call it growth; if we are not we call it catastrophe. And because it is unpredictable and often unnerving, we may seek to rein it in by imposing order and structure.
The Book of Numbers (Sefer B’midbar), the fourth book of Torah, recounts our ancestors’ trek through the wilderness, from the “first day of the second month in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt” (Numbers 1.1) until Moses stands on the steps of Moab, preparing to address his people for the last time before ascending Mt. Nebo to die. For four decades, the Israelites follow a circuitous and winding route through the wilderness, cohering as a nation, learning to live as free people committed to God’s Torah, encountering existential perils and internal hazards. Forty years of Chaos Theory in action: every small event has large and unpredictable consequences down the road.

Yet B’midbar opens with a recitation of the first census take in the Wilderness. Chapters 1 and 2 consist of a long litany of names and population numbers – tribe by tribe – to assess how many men were available to serve as foot soldiers in defense of the fledgling and exceptionally vulnerable Israelite nation. In the Hebrew trop (traditional chanting) this long passage with many repetitive phrases is almost singsong, much like the ditties of young children in which the world is portrayed as organized, under control, and comfortably predictable. Chapters 1 and 2 tell us precisely how the Israelites encamped in the Wilderness: the Ohel Moed (Tent of Meeting) was erected in the center, and the tribes were arranged in a meticulously specified array around it – four groups of Levites surround the Tent on each of the cardinal directions; a division of three tribes encamped behind them, each with its own flag. A rigid, military configuration; everyone assigned a precise place. The very idea of a census to raise a standing army acknowledges unforeseen dangers. At the same time it suggests that the perils of the Wilderness can be controlled, contained, and overcome.
As the Jewish community turns yet again to B’midbar in our annual cycle of reading, we again breathe the Israelites’ rarified air of na├»ve confidence in organization and control. Yet we, who return to this parashah year after year, know what will transpire over the next 38 years. In the coming ten weeks we will recount the failed mission to reconnoiter the Land of Israel, the revolt of Korach and his minions, the traumatizing deaths of Miriam and Aaron, numerous battles, egregious idolatry, and numerous internal rebellions. All this is punctuated by hunger, thirst, fear, complaints (endless complaints), greed, and plague.

Torah’s description of the Israelites’ encampment is a remarkably apt metaphor for our lives: we attempt to impose structure and order on our lives, but then life happens (remember the bumper sticker?). Small perturbations beget enormous oscillations and changes. We struggle to recover, regain our balance – and most often we do – but we come out transformed. Perhaps underlying our resilience is that ideal of organization and control, the image of the Israelite tribes arrayed peacefully in the Wilderness around the Ohel Moed (Tent of Meeting). The primordial image of order (think of the Garden of Eden) assures us that it is possible to get our feet back on the ground even amidst chaos.

What was your Wilderness experience? Was there a formative or life-altering event in your life that led to significant transformation? Perhaps it happened in childhood, college or graduate school, in the crucible of parenthood or grandparenthood. Perhaps you’re traversing the Wilderness now.

It helps us to remember that in chaos there can be great beauty, including the revelation of our resilience, strength we never knew we had, and growth. There are insights and truths we acquire along the trek, and the relationships formed and deepened along the journey – these are often truly beautiful. Chaos Theory has also spawned a beautiful offshoot: geometric fractals. A fractal is a beautiful figure with recursive structure keeps repeating itself again and again on an increasingly small scale. (The graphics in this posting are fractals. My favorite demonstration of how a fractal is formed is the Koch snowflake that begins as a Magen David, and forms an increasing intricate structure as the 6-pointed star is replicated at each point again and again. You can see an animated version of the process here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koch_snowflake.)

Sven Geier, who works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of CalTech, loves fractals and has made many of his creations available for your pleasure and enjoyment. You can find them at: http://www.sgeier.net/fractals/indexe.php. Perhaps you’ll find one you’d like to use as your background for a while to recall that often beauty emerges out of chaos.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, May 16, 2011

Tackling reward & punishment / Bechukkotai

I participate in an “Ask the Rabbi” website. Periodically questions submitted on the site are forwarded to me for response.

Last week, this thoughtful question came my way: “In B'hukotai Leviticus 26:3-27:34 God enumerates the rewards for keeping the commandments and the punishments for violating them. I have difficulty… understanding how to make connections to the severity of these words. It is almost like a parent/child relationship.”

The questioner refers to the famous Tokhechah (Reproach or Execration). It is traditionally read in an undertone because the very thought of these curses evokes fear. How are we to interpret this section of Torah that depicts God as a Being who coerces Israel into obeying his commandments and throttles them if they deviate from his will? I cannot believe in a God so cruel. The Jobian argument that we are too small to understand God’s Big Game Plan doesn’t wash with me: if God can be just on the cosmic scale, God can be just on the micro scale, which is your life and mine. Arguments about God's forgiveness and mercy which are supposed to balance the scale of God’s threats and curses don't hold water for me either, because reward for righteousness and punishment for wickedness are certainly not built-ins of the universe. Perhaps that’s why beliefs about the afterlife (which arose after the Torah was closed and canonized, but are a natural outgrowth of biblical thinking) abound: Bechukkotai’s description of God is powerful but repugnant, and Deuteronomy’s description of reward and punished simply isn’t a reality in this world.

Therefore I was delighted by this marvelous question. I couldn’t wait to dive in. I don't believe that God controls the processes of the universe; the laws of physics do. However, I believe that God is the underlying reality that makes existence possible, and that all existence is part of God.

Here, in part, is my response:

The first thing I want to say is this: The Torah is the first Jewish word on God, but far from the last. It's the beginning of a 3000-year conversation we've been having among ourselves about God that has taken us to some pretty amazing places.

The second thing I want to say is that how we understand God and how we regard Torah are inextricably intertwined ideas. (I invite you to read a piece I wrote on Revelation. You can find it here. Click on "Ideas and Ideals" in the left column, and then on "Revelation.")

Torah speaks of God through images familiar to people in the ancient world: Ruler, Parent, Shepherd. These are metaphors, attempting to stretch our minds toward an idea and reality that is beyond words. The challenge is to determine how to frame Torah and therefore how to interpret it. Specifically:
  1. Did God give Torah, word-for-word?
  2. Is Torah the product of human minds and hearts, expressing their understanding of God and what God requires of them?
  3. Is Torah a divinely inspired document?
  4. Is Torah an ancient law code developed by people and that has no real connection to God?
For me, Torah is a reflection or outgrowth of our people's encounter with God in ancient times. It reflects their understanding of God and their place in God's Creation. It is, by necessity, written in the zeitgeist/mindset of the ancient world. (We do the very same thing when we talk about God.) The notion of reward and punishment seems to be hardwired into the human brain. Very small children not only expect it, but even desire it – it somehow makes the world seem "fair" and therefore "balanced" to them. Very small children grow up into adults, of course, and often continue to require reward and punishment to bolster their sense of "fairness" and "balance." As you have no doubt surmised, I'm not a fan of "fair." I think the combination of justice and compassion ethically trumps "fair."

Having said this let me add that I do not believe in a personal God (i.e. a God who is a Being with will and agency as the Torah describes). There have been many Jewish thinkers throughout the ages who did not believe in a personal God, ranging from Moses Maimonides to the Kabbalists, and many in between. (Some are discussed in the piece on Revelation.) I would locate myself among the Process Thinkers.

Torah is a sacred book for me, a repository of extraordinary wisdom and insight that has unified and fueled Jewish life for many centuries. I do not feel compelled to accept everything as wonderful or appropriate – not by a long stretch. Some elements reflect the ancient world more than they do God (e.g. slavery, treatment of women). Just as our ancestors’ understanding of God was shaped by their world, I am quite sure that my understanding of God is shaped in large measure by the world in which I live. For me that includes the world of mathematics, quantum physics, and evolution). How could it be otherwise? That does not mean this generation’s view of God is the last word, of course. We certainly don’t have a “lock on God," just as I am certain that there are things we tolerate but which future generations will consider completely unacceptable (e.g. poverty).

Allow me to give you two examples of how I might deal with Bechukkotai.

1. Lev. 26:3-13 paints a picture of what happens if we fail to live according to God's values. The passage is couched in the plural – it's all "we" and begins with how we steward the earth. For me, there is great truth in that: how we treat the earth –whether we are caretakers or despoilers – will make all the difference in the quality of everyone's life, including issues of poverty, war and peace, health, and more. To get this right, we have to learn to see that our lives and destiny are inseparably linked to everyone else's, and that we are not separate from "the environment” but rather part of it. When we get that right, God will indeed dwell among us – an integral part of our thinking, acting, living:
I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone; I will give the land respite from vicious beasts, and no sword shall cross your land… I will look with favor upon you, and make you fertile and multiply you; and I will maintain My covenant with you… I will establish My abode in your midst, and I will not spurn you. I will be ever present in your midst: I will be your God, and you shall be My people… (Leviticus 26:6, 9, 11-12).
2. The threats/punishments I don't take literally. (To be precise, I don't believe there is a literal meaning to any text. All texts are interpreted.) However, the threats in Bechukkotai paint a picture of pain, dislocation, and trauma. Indeed, that is – in general terms – indeed what we see when people do not live up to the moral standards of the Torah (again, not on an individual basis – Leviticus isn't saying that – but on a communal basis). I think those overarching moral standards boil down to three:

• Regard others as the image of God and treat them accordingly.
• Protect human dignity.
• Strive for justice and balance it with compassion.

The stern warning in Bechukkotai becomes a prescient warning concerning what we are doing to the earth and its inhabitants.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Cultivating habits of freedom / Parshat Behar

On April 1, 1996, Taco Bell ran a full-page ad in newspapers across the country. The headline read: Taco Bell Buys the Liberty Bell. Under a large photograph of the Liberty Bell, the text read: “In an effort to help the national debt, Taco Bell is pleased to announce that we have agreed to purchase the Liberty Bell, one of our country's most historic treasures. It will now be called the "Taco Liberty Bell" and will still be accessible to the American public for viewing. While some may find this controversial, we hope our move will prompt other corporations to take similar action to do their part to reduce the country's debt.” Timely, no?
(The Bell's First Note, by artist Jean Leon Gerome Ferris)

Happily, the Liberty Bell is still ensconced in its rightful place in Philadelphia. Engraved on its side are words from this week’s parashah: U’k’ratem dror ba-aretz / proclaim liberty throughout the land (Lev. 25:10). Here Torah is speaking about the Jubilee year, and the release from slavery and indentured servitude that occurred during the Jubilee year. Let’s toss the Liberty Bell’s phrase back into its original context and take a look. Torah tells us:
You shall count off seven weeks of years – seven time seven years – so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of 49 years. Then you shall sound the horn loud; in the seventh month, on the 10th day of the month – the Day of Atonement – you shall have the horn sounded throughout your land and you shall hallow the 50th year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family. [Lev. 25:8-10]
This passage is about the Yovel, the Jubilee year. Every 50th year, debts were forgiven, slaves were set freed, and all property sold out of the clan to alleviate oppressive poverty reverted to its original owners.

If you now reread the passage above, you’ll see that Torah says something confusing: The Yovel begins on the first of Tishrei (Rosh Hashanah), but the announcement of the Yovel, heralded by the blowing of the shofar, comes at the close of Yom Kippur, ten days later. Why announce the Yovel 10 days after it begins? Isn’t this tantamount to allowing masters to keep their indentured servants another 10 days gratis? Doesn’t this deny people 10 days of freedom?

It seems terribly unjust, until we look into the Talmud, masekhet Rosh Hashanah 8b, where we learn that during the ten days from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur, former slaves were neither sent home nor compelled to work. Rather, they spent these 10 days in the homes of their former masters transitioning from servitude to freedom. Former slaves feasted together with their former masters in celebration of their impending freedom and then, after Yom Kippur, their former masters sent them off with generous gifts that enabled them to begin their lives anew, re-created.

There is a lesson here for all of us. The former slaves could not jump straight into freedom and assume the attitudes and behaviors of free people. It didn’t come naturally to them. They needed to practice being free.

We, like those who were released in the Jubilee year, need to learn how to be free by cultivating the habits of freedom. That happens through practice. (How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.)

In our day – when we enjoy physical, political, and religious freedom – we are most likely to seek freedom from what enslaves us within. Consider for a moment what holds you back from reaching your full potential, or from genuine happiness? It’s different for each of us.
Taking a cue from parshat Behar’s discussion of the Jubilee year, I want to suggest three types of freedom many of us seek. Perhaps one or more of these will resonate with you. Like the freed slaves who remained with their former masters for 10 days, we must practice these freedoms in order to make them our own.
  1. The first is freedom of communication. By this I don’t mean that you can say what you want. What I mean is that you are free to say what you truly mean. Many of us have learned to lie – a lot. We say what others want to hear, or what we want others to hear us say, or what we want to believe is true. We say we know something when we don’t because we fear the consequence of not knowing. Many people fear the shame they experience if they don’t say “the right thing” or have the “right answer.” Certainly our true thoughts are not called for when there is risk of hurting someone’s feelings or spreading lashon hara. But beyond that, we need to practice freedom of communication and taking some risks to learn how to be our authentic selves and say what we mean.
  2. The second freedom many of us need is the freedom to fail – without blaming others and without denigrating ourselves. Most of us have been taught that failure means we are inadequate. Not so! The truth is: everyone fails at something. It’s part of life. Ask Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Edison – well, that would be hard since they’re dead. But ask J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books. (Any fans out there?) Their lives were long, frustrating strings of failure – for years and years – until they finally achieved success. I had the opportunity to hear J.K. Rowling talk about the blessing of failure; and although everyone was outside and it was 55 degrees and raining, Rowling kept a crowd of several thousand people mesmerized. The deep truth of her message is one we all need to hear. Failure is the best teacher; we need to see it as a teacher, not a source of shame. I think Rowling, Lincoln, and Edison ultimately succeeded not just because they persevered, but because they accepted their failed efforts without thinking that they themselves were failures. Accepting our failures takes practice (hopefully not too much of it!) but it frees us to succeed in ways we have never imagined.
  3. The third freedom is from the need to control. Life is a wild ride – unpredictable and at times scary. And it’s not fair. So much is chance – when and where we were born, what family we were born into, who we met along the way. What’s more, we never know what is around the corner; everything can change in the blink of an eye. So we live our lives in the illusion that we are in control, making choices, and choosing our destiny. Yes, we do exert some control, but less than we think. It’s great to plan, even to over plan, but then we need to go with the flow. If we can free ourselves from the need to control, we can cultivate the habit of flexibility and respond to what’s thrown our way with integrity. But letting go and being flexible need to be practiced. My favorite prayer – the one I find most meaningful – was written by the Protestant minister and theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. You’ve probably heard it. He called it the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” It takes a lot of practice to live up to this prayer, but the payoff, as the title suggests, is serenity – such an important freedom!
All three of these freedoms must be practiced, again and again, to make them habits. We need to practice saying what we mean. We need to practice failing gracefully so we can pick ourselves up and move on. We need to accept that we have far less control than we would like, but freedom to respond to what comes our way with patience, love and compassion. When we practice these habits, and make them fully ours, we will find we are kinder to ourselves and therefore kinder to others, and overall much happier.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Friday, May 6, 2011

The death of Osama bin Laden: is this an occasion to rejoice?

(This is an extra posting. A drash on parshat Emor is below.)

The current conversation in the press, blogs, classrooms, dinner tables concerning whether or not it is appropriate to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden – and particularly what to tell our children – intrigues me. As my daughter Rachel pointed out, you can go with either Proverbs 11:10 or 24:17.
When the righteous prosper the city exults; when the wicked perish there are shouts of joy. (11:10)

If your enemy falls, do not exult; if he trips, do not let your heart rejoice. (24:17)
Are we to rejoice at the demise of bin Laden, or restrain ourselves because a human being has died?

Having recently celebrated Passover, the memory of removing wine from our glasses – wine that symbolizes our joy – when we recall the Ten Plagues upon Egypt is freshly in my mind. Does this accord with Proverbs 24:17? We lessen our joy not because of Pharaoh’s downfall, but because innocent Egyptians suffered from the plagues. It is the pain and suffering of the innocent victims (would we apply the term “collateral damage” today?) for whom we feel compassion more than three millennia later.

Also associated with Passover is a famous midrash from the Talmud. In Megillah 10b we are told that when the Israelites crossed through the Reed Sea on the seventh day out of Egypt, and the waters closed in on the Egyptians, the Israelites sang a song of redemption – the Shirat ha-Yam (Song at the Sea, Exodus, chapter 15). The angels in heaven wished to join in Israel’s song of victory by singing “Halleluyah” but God rebuked them, saying: “How can you sing Halleluyah when My creatures are drowning?” God silenced the angels (Psalm 24:17). But God did not silence the Israelites (Psalm 11:10). They were free of their oppressors. And so we sing Shirat ha-Yam each year on the seventh day of Passover.

I worry that we are losing the ability in our society to label what is evil as evil. It is certainly good and appropriate to understand another’s experience, outlook, and narrative – especially those we deem to be our enemies. But one who plots the murder of thousands of innocent people is evil, in fact such a one is a monster. The game of moral equivalence in the name of “tolerance” should not be played in the face of a mass murderer. Have we not learned that? That bin Laden was killed on Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day), and coinciding with the birthday of Adolf Hitler, should give us great pause to examine our perspective.

Talmud (Berakhot 10a) tells us that Beruriah, the brilliant and remarkable wife of R. Meir taught a valuable lesson to her scholar-husband. Hoodlums living in their neighborhood were harassing R. Meir. Rabbi Meir prayed for their death. Beruriah quoted to him Psalm 104:35, “May sinners (chata’im) disappear from the earth and the evildoers (r’sha’im) be no more.” There were no vowels yet, making it possible to read words with alternative pointing. Beruriah did just that: do not read “sinners” but rather “sins,” she said. And further, do not read “evildoers” but rather “evil deeds.” (Only a change in vowels makes these readings possible.) If their sinning stops, Beruriah pointed out, there will be no more sinners. Therefore, rather than pray for their death, prayer that they repent.

For powerless people beset by neighborhood hooligans, this may be sage advice. But it does not translate to an international mass murderer who will never repent, whose life’s purpose is to engage in terrorism until he reaches the goal of throwing the royal rulers out of Saudi Arabia and installing in their place a medieval caliphate.

We can rejoice at the death of Osama bin Laden because he was a font of evil and would have spent his life planning more terrorist attacks against innocent people. That does not mean we need to bring out the party hats and streamers, and uncork champagne (though I would happily deliver champagne to the brave Navy SEALs who risked their lives to prevent future deaths and carnage).

I hope parents will teach their children that Osama bin Laden was a loathsome terrorist, a mass murderer who is responsible for the murder of thousands and the suffering of countless people and intended to destroy countless more; therefore his death is a good thing. At the same time, I hope these same parents will teach their children not to hate all Arabs. It’s a message we can remind ourselves of, as well. Our prayer is for the end of evil, and we celebrate taking a life only when that is the only way to protect innocent life.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, May 2, 2011

The curse of Narcissus, the requirements of the priesthood / Parshat Emor

In an essay for the Los Angeles Times, Victoria Looseleaf wrote last January:
With Darren Aronofsky's Oscar-nominated ballet thriller, "Black Swan," lasering in on rail-thin physical perfection… coupled with the firestorm created by New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay's sniping that ballerina Jenifer Ringer looked as if she'd "eaten one sugar plum too many" in a recent "Nutcracker" performance, the notion of body fascism — placing a value on one's physical appearance — is flaming on today's cultural radar.
From the first moment a human saw his or her reflection in a body of water (recall the legend of Narcissus?) people have cared about human physical perfection beauty. The Greeks immortalized their version of human perfection in marble. In how many societies throughout the ages have those who do not "rise" to the perceived level of beauty or physical "normalcy" been made to feel inherently inferior or inadequate?
Parshat Emor opens with instructions to the priests, sons of Aaron, including this:
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 hunch back or a dwarf, or who has a growth in his eye, or who has a boil-scar, or scurvy, or crushed testes. (Leviticus 21:16-20)
Most of us squirm uncomfortably when these verses are read. Does Torah really say this? Commentators also squirm uncomfortably, desperately trying to explain away what is, in the last analysis, deeply troubling. Etz Hayim comments:
The reader may be troubled by these rules disqualifying physically handicapped kohanim from officiating in pubic. Perhaps their disfigurements would distract the worshipers from concentrating on the ritual and, like the offering of the blemished animal, would compromise the sanctuary’s image as a place of perfection reflecting God’s perfection (cf. Lev. 22:21-25, where similar language is used for the animals brought to the altar).
Etz Hayyim offers us two possibilities, neither of which succeeds. Can anyone believe that people who are physically different from the “norm” might be distracting in a society where many people (as in any society) have disabilities and deformities and there existed no orthopedic or plastic surgery to remediate even a fraction of them? And even if we could buy this reasoning, shouldn’t Torah be teaching compassion? Wouldn’t God’s acceptance of kohanim (priests) with disabilities and deformities be a powerful example?

The second suggestion, that the priests should be perfect physical specimens just as the animals offered for sacrifice had to be without blemish, derives from a mistaken notion that Jews at that time considered God “perfect.” Simply reading the Torah disavows us of that. God frequently misjudges, changes his mind, and revokes decisions. The notion of God’s perfection (like God’s omnipotence) derives from medieval Christianity, and while it is true that many Jewish philosophers of that era adopted it, it post-dates the Bible by more than a millennium. It is Israel that sought to give God the "best" of what they had -- a lesson learned from Cain and Abel -- and construed "best" as requiring physical "perfection."

This passage begs for interpretation in an age where steroid use is rampant, anorexia has spiked alarmingly (there are websites with tips on how to starve yourself and sport the claim that anorexia is a “lifestyle choice”), those who are physically disabled still lack full access to our buildings and our society, and those who do not tow the straight heterosexual line continue to face discrimination and physical assault.

The quest for, or value placed on, human perfection and the myth of "normalcy" is all-consuming for some, harmful to the esteem of many, and downright dangerous for others.

A young woman named Chrissy Lee Polis was so savagely beaten in a McDonalds restaurant in Baltimore two weeks ago, that she had an epileptic seizure. As the beating – by two teenagers – went on and on, one employee videotaped it all with his cellphone and another stood back watching and laughing. Why? Because Chrissy Lee Polis is transgendered.

Human physical perfection is a myth – and a very dangerous one at that. Mishnah teaches us to always see the individuality and uniqueness of each soul and distance ourselves from the sort of language and thinking that objectifies people. Mishnah tell us:
For this reason a single human being only was created at the time of Creation: to teach you that whoever destroys a single life, Scripture reckons it to him as though he had destroyed a whole world; and whoever saves a single life, Scripture reckons it to him as though he had saved a whole world. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)
Mishnah doesn’t mention people-without-disabilities, people who are heterosexual, people who are gorgeous, or people who qualify to be kohanim serving in the Tabernacle. Every person is precious. The Mishnah continues:
And [a single human being only was created at the time of Creation] to also proclaim the greatness of the Holy One. If a human being stamps several coins with the same die, they all resemble one another. But the Supreme Ruler, the Holy One, stamps all human beings with the die of the first human being; and yet not one of them resembles the other. Therefore every human individual is obligated to say: For my sake was the world created!” Mishnah teaches us to remember always that each human being is unique and unparalleled.
Could there be a more beautiful exaltation of human diversity? The Mishnah wants us to revel in human variety. This is not to say that we are happy about those who suffer from disabilities; we do everything in our power to help them reach their goals. But we may not devalue them or disregard them.

In the extreme, the attitude that people with disabilities, deformities, and differences are “less than” leads to what we saw in the 1940s. This past Sunday was Yom haShoah, a day of solemn memorial for six million of our people who were systematically murdered because they were deemed to be biologically – and hence morally – inferior: virus or contagion among humanity.

The Nazis also went after the disabled. The “Law for the Prevention of Progeny with Hereditary Diseases” (1933) mandated the sterilization of those who had conditions considered hereditary, including mental illness, physical deformities, epilepsy, learning disabilities, blindness, and deafness. Later, sterilization of the disabled gave way to mass murder.

For there to be change, it must begin with us – each and every one of us. We must, if we haven’t already, confront our own inner prejudices so we can value people without reference to their beauty, abilities, bodies, or sexuality. We must come to revel in the diversity around us. When we look into the eyes of another person, we must train ourselves to see not someone who is beautiful or not, perfect or not, fully abled or not, heterosexual or not, but rather, we must see in the countenance before us the image of God peering back at us.

Vicky Thoms knows this in her gut and she lives it. Thoms entered the McDonalds while Chrissy Lee Polis was being brutally beaten. Although Thoms was recovering from a back injury, she intervened. Chrissy’s attackers kicked Vicky Thoms in the head, but that didn’t deter her. Later, when someone asked whether Thoms knew that Polis was a transgendered woman, Thoms replied, “No, I didn’t, and I don’t care.” Vicky Thoms has been lauded a hero, but she doesn’t see herself that way. When asked why she took such a risk to intervene, Thoms quoted a verse from last week’s Torah portion, “Because the Bible tells us not to stand idly by.” Check out Leviticus 19:16 – lo ta’amod al dam rei’echa “do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds – that’s a value to live by.

I don’t have an answer to why the Torah tells us that the priests must be “without defect” to serve in the Tabernacle, but I do know that the requirement for physical “perfection” should never be generalized or normalized. It was then and there, and there we should leave it. Yet imagine with me the message that would have been delivered had Torah said:
The Lord spoke further to Moses: Speak to Aaron and say: Every one of your offspring throughout the ages is qualified to offer the food of his God. I, the Lord your God, cherish each individual, whether blind, or lame, or with a limb too short or too long; with a broken leg or a broken arm; or a hunchback or a dwarf, or with a growth in his eye, or a boil-scar, or scurvy, or crushed testes. They are all precious to Me.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman