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Embracing Imperfection: The Unseen Instruments of God© Parashat Tetzaveh - Jewish Disabilities and Inclusion Awareness Month

Think back to a time when you felt overlooked. Maybe it was at work when you did a lot of work for a group project but someone else took the credit. Or during a social gathering, you shared a personal achievement, but the conversation quickly shifted to another topic, or maybe it was when you were picked last to play in a sport when you were a kid. 

The feelings conjured are often painful. It doesn’t feel good to be overlooked and ignored. It is hard to be invisible. 

In this week’s parashah, we read about the priests, and the place they have in the camp of Israel, and at the center of Israelite religious practice. For weeks we have been learning about the Tabernacle, and this week, we are going to learn about the lucky few chosen to run the Tabernacle, the place where God will dwell in camp.

וְאַתָּה הַקְרֵב אֵלֶיךָ אֶת־אַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ וְאֶת־בָּנָיו אִתּוֹ מִתּוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְכַהֲנוֹ־לִי אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אֶלְעָזָר וְאִיתָמָר בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן׃

You shall bring forward your brother Aaron, with his sons, from among the Israelites, to serve Me as priests: Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, the sons of Aaron.

וְעָשִׂיתָ בִגְדֵי־קֹדֶשׁ לְאַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ לְכָבוֹד וּלְתִפְאָרֶת׃

Make sacral vestments for your brother Aaron, for dignity and adornment.

וְאַתָּה תְּדַבֵּר אֶל־כל־חַכְמֵי־לֵב אֲשֶׁר מִלֵּאתִיו רוּחַ חכְמָה וְעָשׂוּ אֶת־בִּגְדֵי אַהֲרֹן לְקַדְּשׁוֹ לְכַהֲנוֹ־לִי׃

Next you shall instruct all who are skillful, whom I have endowed with the gift of skill, to make Aaron’s vestments, for consecrating him to serve Me as priest.

In order to be looked up to, the priests had to dress a certain way, they had to, ‘stand out’. But, what happened if you were, a different type of priest. 

Later on in the book of Leviticus 21:18-23, we read:

כִּי כל־אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר־בּוֹ מוּם לֹא יִקְרָב אִישׁ עִוֵּר אוֹ פִסֵּחַ אוֹ חָרֻם אוֹ שָׂרוּעַ׃

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;-c

אוֹ אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר־יִהְיֶה בוֹ שֶׁבֶר רָגֶל אוֹ שֶׁבֶר יָד׃

no man who has a broken leg or a broken arm;

אוֹ־גִבֵּן אוֹ־דַק אוֹ תְּבַלֻּל בְּעֵינוֹ אוֹ גָרָב אוֹ יַלֶּפֶת אוֹ מְרוֹחַ אָשֶׁךְ׃

or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf, or who has a growth in his eye, or who has a boil-scar, or scurvy, or crushed testes.

כל־אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר־בּוֹ מוּם מִזֶּרַע אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן לֹא יִגַּשׁ לְהַקְרִיב אֶת־אִשֵּׁי יְהֹוָה מוּם בּוֹ אֵת לֶחֶם אֱלֹהָיו לֹא יִגַּשׁ לְהַקְרִיב׃

No man among the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the LORD’s offering by fire; having a defect, he shall not be qualified to offer the food of his God.

לֶחֶם אֱלֹהָיו מִקדְשֵׁי הַקֳּדָשִׁים וּמִן־הַקֳּדָשִׁים יֹאכֵל׃

He may eat of the food of his God, of the most holy as well as of the holy;

אַךְ אֶל־הַפָּרֹכֶת לֹא יָבֹא וְאֶל־הַמִּזְבֵּחַ לֹא יִגַּשׁ כִּי־מוּם בּוֹ וְלֹא יְחַלֵּל אֶת־מִקְדָּשַׁי כִּי אֲנִי יְהֹוָה מְקַדְּשָׁם׃

but he shall not enter behind the curtain or come near the altar, for he has a defect. He shall not profane these places sacred to Me, for I the LORD have sanctified them.

So what if you are a priest who isn’t perfect? 

I want to tell you about a rabbinic family, maybe the closest things we have the priesthood nowadays. The story was told in the book written by Rabbi Charles Sherman: The Broken and the Whole: Discovering Joy Afer Heartbreak.

Rabbi Charles Sherman served his congregation in Syracuse, NY for forty years.  He and his wife had four children - two of his children are prominent rabbis, one is a dear friend, Rabbi Erez Sherman, and three of his children produced grandchildren.  

His son Eyal didn’t go to rabbinical school, but he did graduate from Syracuse University with a bachelor’s degree, at 28.  Eyal was never married, didn’t have a job, and lived with his parents until his 30’s.

Doesn’t sound like much a success story does he?

Eyal had a much different path than his brother Erez.  In July of 1985, the Sherman family, Chuck, his wife Leah, his daughters Nogah and Orah, their son Eyal, a 4-year-old, and their youngest son, Erez, age 3, were taking their annual summer vacation in Elm Beach, in the Poconos where they owned a vacation home.  The sun was shining, the kids were playing, and little Eyal was gulping down chocolate popsicles – life couldn’t be any better.  Elm Beach was their family’s happy place – there were no cell phones or email at the time – Rabbi Sherman could just be Chuck, and his family, just another family enjoying the summer and the lake.  Chuck loves this memory and he writes about it in the book he wrote about his life, the Broken and the Whole – there, at that moment, his family was whole.  

Eight months later, on a cold March night in Syracuse, Eyal woke up crying.  Rabbi Sherman sees his four year old son Eyal on the floor crying, his Sesame Street blanket rolled into a ball, his pillow on the floor, and Eyal had a raging fever.  This was the beginning of their new lives, they just didn’t know it yet.  After visiting numerous doctors and hospitals, they finally received a diagnosis:  Eyal had a lesion the size of a golf ball intertwined in his brain stem.  Their doctors told them, “Take him home, enjoy whatever time you have left, if you’re lucky, you’ll have a year.  More likely, just weeks.”  

The Sherman’s weren’t ready to see their son die.  After months of searching, they found a surgeon in New York willing to operate on Eyal.  The surgery was successful, their hope in having a whole life was restored, they were whole again.  But, a few days later, Eyal had a brain-stem stroke; he slipped into a coma for four months.  Finally, Eyal woke up, and his mind was there.  He remembered his family, he could mouth words, and he even made a couple of jokes.  But his body was broken.  He became a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down, dependent on a vent to breath.  It was at that moment that they realized, their lives would never be the same again.  Only a handful of children with Eyal’s physical challenges had ever survived more than a couple of years, but Eyal has beaten the odds.  

Eyal had always struggled physically – his life had not been easy, and his family had been there every step of the way.  But despite it all, not only had Eyal lived, but he graduated from Syracuse University after twelve years of study with a degree in Fine Arts, and he became a painter, an artist.  Thanks to the internet and a computer he controls with his chin, he kept up with what was happening in the world, he made his own decisions, what he’d wear, what he wanted to do, and who he wanted to interact with.  Travel was not easy, but he traveled, and I held Eyal’s hand when his younger brother Erez was ordained as a rabbi at JTS in 2009.  

His life was a miracle in so many ways, but unfortunately, Eyal passed away at 36 years old.  

People would say that Eyal was handicapped, that he was broken, but his heart was whole.  

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk famously said, "There is nothing more whole than a broken heart.”

Dr. Erica Brown, a teacher of Talmud, commented on this line saying, “Many experiences in life try to break us: illness, loneliness, the death of those we love, rejection, insecurity, loss. But such experiences also make us more whole as human beings. They expand our range of consciousness and compassion. They enlarge our capacity for inclusion. They make us stronger and help us reach out to others with greater empathy and concern. When we acknowledge that we are broken, we enter a universe where we are not measured by perfection but by our willingness to repair ourselves and the world. We stop judging others only when we can recognize our own inadequacies.”

February is Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month.  During this month, we challenge ourselves to see what it means to be whole and to be seen.

I want to return to our parashah, and explain something that we skipped over at the beginning. Before the commandment to make special clothing for the priests who could serve, we read:

שמות כ״ז:כ׳-כ״א

(כ) וְאַתָּ֞ה תְּצַוֶּ֣ה ׀ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל וְיִקְח֨וּ אֵלֶ֜יךָ שֶׁ֣מֶן זַ֥יִת זָ֛ךְ כָּתִ֖ית לַמָּא֑וֹר לְהַעֲלֹ֥ת נֵ֖ר תָּמִֽיד׃ (כא) בְּאֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵד֩ מִח֨וּץ לַפָּרֹ֜כֶת אֲשֶׁ֣ר עַל־הָעֵדֻ֗ת יַעֲרֹךְ֩ אֹת֨וֹ אַהֲרֹ֧ן וּבָנָ֛יו מֵעֶ֥רֶב עַד־בֹּ֖קֶר לִפְנֵ֣י יְי חֻקַּ֤ת עוֹלָם֙ לְדֹ֣רֹתָ֔ם מֵאֵ֖ת בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ (ס) 

Exodus 27:20-21

(20) You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly (le’ha’alot Ner Tamid). (21) Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain which is over [the Ark of] the Pact, [to burn] from evening to morning before the LORD. It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages.

The Etz Chaim Chumash comments: “Why has light been such a favorite symbol of God? Perhaps because light itself cannot be seen. We become aware of its presence when it enables us to see other things. Similarly, we cannot see God, but we become aware of God's presence when we see the beauty of the world, when we experience love and the goodness of our fellow human beings.”

Perhaps God wanted us not just to see the Priests who could serve in their regal clothing, but also those born into the Priesthood, but through no fault of their own, could not serve as others could.

But they serve in other ways. 

Eyal wrote the last chapter in Rabbi Charles Sherman’s book, The Broken and the Whole:  Discovering Joy After Heartbreak .  He writes about getting into the wheelchair for the first time at age 5, going back home, and making a decision:  “Do I sit and look at the walls all day, or do something with my life.”

He decided to do something, to expand his horizons.  It had a snowball effect on him, and others.  One thing lead to another.  He ends the book with these words, “When I see people doing all kinds of things, it makes me have the urge to do what they are doing, too.  What I’ve learned is there is more to life than just sitting in a wheelchair.  Eyal penned a short poem:

It isn’t fair

I’m in a wheelchair,

But I can do things that you wouldn’t dare

If you see me rolling by,

Just give a smile and say Hi!

He continues, “I have a dream, that someday I will be able to walk and overcome all my disabilities and God shall answer each and every one of our prayers, and when that day comes, it will truly be a miracle.”  

Eyal never walked in the literal sense, but he walked with God all his life, and walks with God now in the world to come.  And during his time on earth, he became one of the greatest rabbis in his family, to his congregation in Syracuse, to the Jewish community at large, and now, to the world.  

During this month, let us shine the light on people like Eyal, stories that are waiting to be told, waiting to be shown the light, and welcomed as vital members of our communities. 

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