“The Uses of Adversity”, Rabbi Richard A. Block, Rosh Hashanah 5776/2015

 The Uses of Adversity
Rabbi Richard A. Block
The Temple – Tifereth Israel
Beachwood and Cleveland, Ohio
Rosh Hashanah 5776/2015

Jack Benny, the renowned Jewish comedian, received many awards during his career. Once, honored as a humanitarian, Benny remarked, “I don’t deserve this award, but I have arthritis and I don’t deserve that either.” In his unique, witty way, Benny touched upon one of the most profound challenges of human existence: dealing with suffering that bears no evident relationship to a person’s character or deeds.

The belief that good conduct deserves to be rewarded and bad conduct punished is deeply embedded in human consciousness, in our visceral sense of right and wrong. Bad things shouldn’t happen to good people; when they do it strikes us as profoundly unfair. This becomes a religious or theological issue when God is said to be the source of the standards to which we are held and the one who issues the verdict. Our High Holy Day liturgy proclaims, “As the shepherd seeks out the flock, and makes the sheep pass under the staff, so do You muster and number and consider every soul, setting the bounds of every creature’s life, and decreeing its destiny.”

The fundamental difficulty with this narrative is existential: the conflict between how things ought to be and how they really are, the gap – no, more – the yawning chasm that often exists between what people “deserve” and what they get. This problem is acknowledged with admirable candor in our Jewish scriptures. The book of Job eloquently rejects the claim that we all receive our just desserts. Our ancient rabbis, too, struggled with the profound contradiction between the just, loving God in whom they believed, and the injustices of human existence. Rabbi Yannai taught, “We do not have at hand an explanation for either the prospering of the wicked or the suffering of the righteous.” If an explanation exists, he couldn’t conceive of it.

Other sages took a very different approach. They saw undeserved afflictions not as punishment, but as manifestations of God’s love, given for our benefit, to be accepted not with resentment, but gratefully, for which acceptance they believed, we are rewarded. They taught, “We are required to bless God for [ills that befall us], even as we bless God for good.” In support of this remarkable proposition, they quoted Job, “God has given. God has taken away.” Still, “Blessed be the name of God.”   

The Talmudic concept of “afflictions of love” did not receive unanimous support. When R. Yohanon was asked, “Are your sufferings welcome to you?” he replied, “Neither they nor their reward.” I doubt that many ancient rabbis welcomed suffering, whatever its source, any more than we do. And I cannot and do not believe that a loving God would cause people to suffer undeservedly. Rather, I agree with Rabbi Harold Kushner, who wrote, “Given the unfairness that strikes so many people in life, I would rather believe in a God of limited power and unlimited love and justice, than the other way around.”

Nonetheless, I believe the rabbis of old were teaching an important truth. They were realists. They knew the world is far from perfect, that existence can be unjust, and downright cruel, and that every life is touched by suffering, grief, and pain, even if not in fair or equal measure. Still, they held that we will be healthier, happier and find life more meaningful if we resist bitterness and cultivate instead “an attitude of gratitude.” And they took it one step farther, insisting, “Those who refuse to learn from their suffering suffer doubly for their stubbornness.” When adversity afflicts us, even undeservedly, we compound it if we fail to discern something useful and redemptive.

How might unwarranted suffering or unavoidable hardship be of benefit? By stimulating humility, deepening empathy, helping us to appreciate our blessings and acquire wisdom. As our prayerbook observes, “The Psalmist said that in his affliction, he learned the law of God. And in truth, grief is a great teacher, when it sends us back to serve and bless the living.” Thirty-one years after the heartbreaking death of my brother, Steven, I still recall how consoling I found those words of assurance. Grief caused me to become a more empathetic person and a better rabbi. My parents emerged from the tragedy gentle and non-judgmental, firm in the belief that, all in all, they had been blessed with a wonderful life.

As some of you know, while Susie and I were away last winter, she fell and broke both ankles and a bone in one foot. While this was hardly tragic, these painful and inconvenient injuries left Susie needing a wheelchair for weeks and turned our lives upside down. Nine months later, thankfully, Susie is fine, but there were valuable lessons along the way, rewards that resulted from hardship.

One thing I learned was about myself: that I am more capable, and a better person, than I knew. For most of our 46 years of married life, at least since my student days, the main breadwinner role has been mine, and Susie has principally been a homemaker and community volunteer. One Mothers’ Day, I bought Susie a card that listed many things she does so superbly at home. “I know how much you do,” the card concluded. “I’ve been watching you from my recliner.” Our sons and daughters in law manage their work and family lives very differently, and I admire them for it, but that hasn’t been our pattern. When the extent of Susie’s injuries became clear, I felt sympathy and concern, of course. But for a brief time, I am ashamed to admit, the strongest emotion I experienced was a selfish one: fear. Our roles, so long, comfortably, and firmly established, had reversed almost completely. Suddenly, I was Susie’s caretaker, the attendant to a spouse with a disability of indeterminate duration. What would that role demand of me? Could I step up and do what would be needed, given my sub-rudimentary domestic skills and accustomed, as I was, to being cared for? More importantly, I wondered, could I find within myself the reservoirs of patience, kindness, and unselfishness the coming months would require?

It turned out that, for the most part, I could and did. The experience deepened my appreciation of what Susie contributes to our marriage every day, enhanced my self-esteem, and drew us closer. As the deposed and exiled Duke discovers in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, “Sweet are the uses of adversity, which, like the toad, ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel in his head. And this our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.” Susie’s difficulties were unanticipated, unwelcome and undeserved, but they brought blessings in their wake.

We both learned a great deal from the perspective of a person with a disability and her attendant. Things look very different from the seat of a wheelchair or behind one. As we transited the world of disability, formerly mundane tasks like getting in and out of a public restroom, taxi or restaurant, on and off an airplane or an airport shuttle, crossing a lawn, were awkward or difficult and, at times, impossible without the intervention and assistance of other persons, mechanisms and machines.

Being a wheelchair user often caused Susie to be treated as if she were deaf and unable to express herself. As I wheeled her up to airport check-in counters and as we boarded or prepared to disembark from planes, airline personnel would invariably ask me a question that began, “Does she need…?” Though they were solicitous, helpful, and meant well, condescension was implicit in asking me what Susie needed, as if she were unable to speak for herself. But until Susie pointed it out to me, I, too, was clueless.

A third, more heartening insight, was how many thoughtful, kind people there are. Throughout our travels, whenever we were struggling and even when we were not, total strangers noticed and came forward. One night, we arrived late at the Toronto airport, where we had a layover. There was no one available to assist with our suitcases, so I pushed Susie in the wheelchair and she, in turn, pushed the loaded luggage cart. A woman walking the same direction glanced over and said, “May we help? I have a spare teenager.” Our next hurdle was boarding the hotel shuttle, which lacked wheelchair access. Without being asked, another family assisted us in getting Susie, her wheelchair, and our luggage into the bus, and insisted on accompanying us to our hotel, which was beyond their own destination, to help us unload safely.

Our world is plagued with so much senseless hatred and violence, apathy and indifference. It is easy to think the worst of humanity. The Talmud tells us that the followers of Hillel and Shammai debated for two and a half years whether it would have been better if God had not created human beings. The Shammaites held that a human-free world would have been best, but I side with Hillel who taught, “Do not judge another until you stand in his place.” And “when you judge others, give them the benefit of the doubt.” Our disability experience confirmed the conclusion of Camus’ novel, The Plague, that “in a time of pestilence [we learn]: that there are more things to admire in [people] than to despise.”

Our prayerbook observes, “Days pass and the years vanish and we walk sightless among miracles.” The same is true of obstacles. Countless things of which people without disabilities are blithely unaware can present daunting challenges and insurmountable barriers to those with physical limitations. One thing our experience taught us was the difference between impairment and disability. Impairment is a missing or defective limb, organ, or mechanism of the body. Disability involves limitations faced by people with impairments in environments that are not accessible enough for them to move, function, and communicate as effectively. Not surprisingly, these environments are designed mainly by people who do not have disabilities. In Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche DuBois utters the heartbreaking line, “Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” Susie and I will forever be grateful to both the strangers and friends with whose empathy and kindness we were blessed, but these would not have been needed if some of the environments we encountered had been better designed to accommodate Susie’s needs.

Jewish tradition has a great deal to say on the subject of disabilities. Professor Elliot Dorff points out that many biblical heroes were disabled in some way. “Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Hannah are all [infertile] for some time in their lives. Isaac and Jacob suffer from blindness in their old age. Jacob was lame most of his life, and even the greatest biblical hero, Moses, suffered from a speech impediment.” Similarly, a number of Talmudic rabbis were disabled.” Dorff observes that “from the very start traditional Judaism’s approach to disability is remarkably enlightened and compassionate, especially when compared to…other cultures…We should take pride in the fundamental humanity embedded in our own tradition.”

The foundational value of Judaism is found in the Torah, where we learn that human beings are created in the image of God. That means that every human being is of inestimable worth and is entitled to be treated with kindness, fairness, and respect, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, appearance, physical or mental ability or disability, limitation or impairment. Human dignity does not have to be earned, proved, or justified. It is not contingent; it is intrinsic. It is inherent in our very being. To be created in God’s image is also to be unique. Never before and never again has there ever been or will there ever be another human being exactly like you, or me. Each and every person has an irreplaceable, God-given gift to be discovered, nurtured, shared and celebrated, a distinctive piece of the human puzzle (and if we’re Jews, the Jewish puzzle) that no one else possesses or can supply. Thus, alluding to Roman imperial pageantry, a midrash teaches, “A procession of angels goes before each person as heralds, announcing, ‘Make way for the image of God.’”

          All of us, whatever our challenges, disabilities, and imperfections, long and deserve to know that we are valued, needed and loved. Rabbi Akiba used to say, “It is a sign of God’s love that we are created in God’s image. That it was made known to us that we are created in God’s image is a mark of superabundant love.” What an audacious and empowering assertion! That you and I are known, valued, needed, and loved, not just by dear ones, friends, and colleagues, but by our Creator; that even in an unimaginably vast universe, every human life, though fleeting and perishable, makes an indelible and enduring difference.

          As God loves us, we are obliged to love others. The Torah commands us, “Do not curse the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind…” Rather, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am Adonai.” And “You shall love the stranger as yourself.” It adds, poignantly, “You know the heart of the stranger, having been strangers in the land of Egypt.” What does it mean to love others “as oneself?” It is to recognize our fundamental commonality with all people, even those who seem different or strange, to draw upon our own experiences of rejection, exclusion, alienation, and otherness, as sources of empathy, and to insist that others be treated as we would want to be treated in their place.

It has been twenty-five years since President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act and declared, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.” The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in all aspects of the employment process and requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for qualified individuals unless doing so would create an undue hardship.It mandates access to government services, public accommodations, education, and public transportation. But many of the law’s goals have not been realized. For example, only 21 percent of New York City subway stations are accessible. When Hurricane Sandy struck, no high rise evacuation plan was in place, leaving many people with disabilities and persons who are elderly trapped in their apartments for as long as six days without power, including those with home dialysis machines, portable respirators, and electric wheelchairs.

One in five Americans has a disability. Fewer than 20 percent of people with disabilities were employed in 2014, compared with 68 percent of those without disabilities. Many online employment websites are inaccessible to users with disabilities, especially individuals who are blind or have low vision, preventing them from even applying.If offered a job, they are more likely to have difficulty finding accessible housing, reliable transportation, and adequate health care. Federal programs created to address these needs receive little attention and are insufficiently funded. As one consequence, 31 percent of people with disabilities live below the poverty line. The problems are not just in transportation, the workplace, and emergency preparedness. Schools continue to fail students with disabilities. In 2014, the Department of Education found that the special education programs of only nineteen states’ could be designated as “meets requirements.”

As Jews, we know well what it means to be a minority. These experiences have motivated us to fight for the rights of other minority populations, including people who are African Americans, Native Americans, and gay and lesbian. People with disabilities constitute another minority, in America and in our Jewish communities, one that is often invisible. Among those ages 65 and older, the rate of disabilities is three times that of the US population as a whole. Since aging is unavoidable, those of us who don’t yet have some degree of disability are only “temporarily abled.” As a young woman in a wheelchair told a Jewish conference on disabilities in Los Angeles, “Don’t care about the disabled out of sympathy. Care for them for your own selfish reasons, for you, too, will be like me someday.”

According to a recent survey of the American Jewish community, children and adults with physical, developmental, or learning disabilities are dramatically underrepresented among those engaged in Jewish life. It is also true in Israel. In a recent blog by Beth Steinberg, Executive Director and co-founder of Shutaf, Inclusion Programs for Children with Special Needs in Jerusalem, and the mother of Akiva, an 18 year old son with autism, she wrote, “I am sometimes angry. I admit to that. I own that. Not angry at him, not angry at the genetic twist of fate that gave him his particular needs, but angry at a world that hasn’t made it easy, that doesn’t teach us welcoming thoughts and an ethos of acceptance for all humankind…” Beth continues, “You know what we really are? Lonely. Loneliness? It’s the unknown challenge, the well-kept secret of being a person with disabilities, as well as the parent and caregiver of an individual…with disabilities…It [is] embedded in who I am, who we are, our family’s history and cumulative parenting experiences, and greater society’s isolation, at times careless at times cruel, of people with disabilities and by default, their caregivers — those who love and care for them, cradle to grave.”        

Jewish institutions, synagogues among them, need to do a better job of promoting accessibility, inclusion, and diversity. That includes our Temple, whose vision statement proclaims, “We are a warm, welcoming synagogue family where each person matters.” In making this sacred affirmation, and doing all we can to move it increasingly from aspiration to realization, we heed the Torah’s words, “It’s not good for a person to be lonely.” We fulfill the Talmud’s admonition, “All Jews are responsible for one another.” And we affirm God’s declaration in Isaiah, “My House shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples,”

I am pleased to report that when our exciting TempleTomorrow project is completed, our worship and gathering spaces, new classrooms, restrooms, entrances, and parking lots will be ADA compliant. The bima of our sanctuary, too, will, at long last, be accessible, and we have been promised that the acoustics will improve dramatically, which will help those, like me, with hearing loss. Still, there remains much we can do to become a warmer, more welcoming, respectful, inclusive and diverse congregation: communicating that all people are of equal value and are to be respected and openly welcomed; working with people with disabilities, not for them; using “people-first language” that recognizes people’s strengths, rather than defining them by their disabilities or limitations; ensuring that program registration and sign-up forms include questions about accommodations people may need to participate fully; spreading the word in our congregational communications media that all persons, with and without disabilities, are welcome and appreciated; staff and leadership training; assessing our programs, services, and facilities to make them more accessible; and linking up with other organizations that serve people with disabilities, within and beyond the Jewish community. These things aren’t all easy, but they are achievable. To that end, we will be organizing a Temple Task Force on Inclusion. Please let me know if you would like to participate.

A Hasidic story tells of two thoroughly drunk peasants at a table in a country inn. Ivan demands, “Igor! Do you love me?” Surprised, Igor replies, “Of course I love you! You’re my best friend.” “Oh yes?” Ivan says. “If you really love me, why don’t you know what hurts me, the pain I have in my heart?” As the New Year begins, let us open our eyes and see the world both as it is and as it can be if we care and do enough. Let us open our hearts to those around us and recognize their full humanity and their unique, God-given gifts. Let us resolve to love others as we love ourselves, to seek to know their pain, let them know they matter, recognize the stumbling blocks in their path, and do all we can to remove them. Keyn y’hi l’ratzon. May this be God’s will, and our own. Amen.