What’s YOUR Disability?



by Rabbi Neal Gold

All of us are damaged in some way; it’s a fundamental part of being human. Also human is the way in which we confront our brokenness; the gracefulness with which accept our imperfections.

My personal disability is rather awkward because it plays out so publicly—in the classroom, in meetings (in Buber’s sense of the word), in our sanctuary, and even across a hospital bed. I started losing my hearing a few years ago, at exactly the same age when my father began to lose his. It began to impact my effectiveness in my work. I would get frustrated, angry at myself. I even had a moment of “bottoming out,” to use the language of addiction and recovery, when I sat in the front row for an important lecture of which I heard practically nothing. It rocked me deeply.

All of us have fears that awaken us in the middle of the night, when the day’s distractions have dissolved away. Lately mine is the prospect of what my hearing loss will be like when I’m 50, or 60, or beyond. Will I move from “hearing-impaired” to full-fledged deafness? Will I be able to function at my job? Those are real fears I carry in my soul, with genuine anguish.

But these days those fears don’t slow me down. Quite to the contrary. I’ve become more and more comfortable with saying to students in my classroom, “This is what I’m working to overcome. This is my disability. What’s yours?” I’ve seen my students, kids and adults, respond with self-awareness and willingness to open themselves to me as I’ve opened myself to them. Many of them are more willing to speak about their disabilities – physical, emotional, learning – once they’ve seen me be upfront about mine.

Truth is, I find an enormous amount of strength in our tradition. Personal prayer has become far more intense since I’ve come to grips with my disability. The morning prayers, for instance, contain a remarkable passage on the body’s delicateness: “You have made the human body filled with tiny holes and orifices… If one of them were opened when it should be closed, or closed when it should be opened, we wouldn’t be able to stand before You for even a moment.” When I reflect that my hearing loss stems from the ossification of the miniscule bones in the inner ear, I share the wonder of the siddur’s poet. It’s a daily miracle how much works so well!

In the Torah, many of our ancestors carried some sort of brokenness. Isaac was blind; so too, perhaps, was Leah. Jacob’s leg was wrenched wrestling with the angel; perhaps he limped for the rest of his life. Most famously, Moses stood before G-d at the burning bush and said, in essence, “Why would you choose me to speak before Pharaoh?  After all, my lips…” The Torah is enigmatic about Moses’s shortcoming: Did he stutter?  Did he have a disabled palate? Or was he merely terrified of public speaking? It matters—but not as much as G-d’s response to him, which is, in essence, “I don’t make mistakes. I’ve called you to do a job, to speak truth to the tyrant that is Pharaoh. And if you trust Me, we’ll find the words, together.”

I have no delusions (trust me) of being a Jacob or Moses or Isaac or Leah. But I study their life-stories and try to learn their lessons. Isaac found the words to bless his children. Leah went on to find love and, if you believe the midrash, she also found her sister. Jacob, even with his limp, is still called shalem, “whole” – a poignant reminder that these finite bodies are mere containers for the infinity in our souls. And Moses, G-d’s servant and partner, spoke through damaged lips the words, “Let my people go.”

I imagine that each of them felt sorry for themselves when they first confronted their disabilities. Maybe their family and friends supported them in their struggles (maybe they didn’t). But eventually, each of them found a way back to Life; to saying: This is Who I Am. No longer will it hold me back, but I’ll offer myself, anew, in all my brokenness, to do what I was designed to do all along. In faith and tradition and the love of others, I will find my strength.

This is my brokenness. What’s yours?

 Rabbi Neal Gold is the senior rabbi of Temple Shir Tikva in Wayland, MA.

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6 Responses to “What’s YOUR Disability?”

  1. avatar

    Kol hakavod, Rabbi. Over the past couple of years since I discovered this blog, and considered not reading it any more multiple times because of the frustrating nature of much of the discourse, I keep deciding to continue being a regular reader and contributor because of the touching stories that are occasionally posted. If there is one thing that liberal Jews have to be proud of in comparison to, say, liberal Christians, it is the incredible attention paid across the board to people with disabilities. There are countless books and other media dedicated to discussing and brainstorming modalities for fuller inclusion of people with disabilities in youth and adult education as well as general Synagogue and Jewish home life.

    As someone who holds certain beliefs and preferences which are extremely unpopular and misunderstood in Reform Jewish circles today, I appreciate how much of the disagreement dissolves when discussing issues of general morality and human issues such as these. I have struggled with a learning disability all my life, and while neither those responsible for my secular schooling nor those charged with my Jewish education really “got it”, I see that my experience was not the norm–so many people ARE getting the help and love and support they need from Jewish institutions. Thank you for expanding the focus of this discussion to other kinds of obstacles, both inborn and acquired. Showing one’s own brokenness unashamedly, as a pastoral figure, can help others open up about their shortcomings and work through them with the help of God and the community.

    Particularly powerful was your account of the positive effect of hearing loss on your private devotional life. I imagine that it’s incredibly healing to share your frustrations with the One who hears with no ears and through all ears at the same time. Indeed, perhaps having “broken” physical ears makes one hear the bat kol more clearly with one’s spiritual ears. The authors of the Siddur do indeed seem to have thought of almost everything, don’t they?

    Warmest regards and blessings,

    Jordan

  2. avatar

    Dear Neal,
    As always-you are wonderful! As a Cantor and musician I too suffer with loss of hearing. When in my second year of college I lost all my hearing in my right ear-know one knows why. I have learned to live with it-but it is certainly humbling and reminds me of the way life can change in an instant. Gaby

  3. avatar

    What a wonderful statement you have written, Neal, about living with a disability. Thank you.

  4. avatar

    Neal,
    Thank you for your insight, your strength and you ability to be so open. As you said, we all have disabilities and brokenness, when we are able to share them with others we become more whole and give others permission to share their places of brokenness. The ancient Israelites traveled through the desert with both the whole pieces of the covenant and the pieces that Moses broke from anger. May our disabilities bless us and those we teach.

  5. avatar

    Gaby, Aaron, Renee — thanks for your kind comments. Gaby — “humbling” is a great and appopriate term in this context; indeed, it is a Jewish virtue. Renee — I love that image from the Talmud, too, about the whole & broken pieces of the tablets. I know that you know that the original context is a very powerful statement about dementia in our elders (“How do we know that we should honor a sage who has forgotten all of his learning? Because both the whole and broken tablets were carried in the ark…” Whew! Such great Torah!)

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