D’var Torah, Tazria/M’tzora: Broken Pieces of God’s World



by Billy Dreskin

Matan Koch is an old friend of mine who, nine years ago, was (what we used to refer to as) a “wheelchair-bound” law student at Harvard University. Today, he’s an attorney and senior federal official who’s still anchored to his wheelchair. While in law school, Matan jotted down some thoughts about his peculiar position in life. I spent a summer with Matan at the URJ Kutz Camp, and I saw how dependent he is on not only his wheelchair for mobility, but also on aides who help him eat, help him bathe, and help him go to the bathroom. With this as background, I think you’ll find his words extraordinary. He writes1 (in substance):

I didn’t ask to be lucky, didn’t ask to be one of the few persons with disabilities to get all of the services that I need. I am no less deserving than anyone else. Yet, what gives me trouble is that I am also no more deserving. “There but for the grace of God go I.” This rings through my head as I sit at my Vocational Rehab-purchased laptop reading about the tens of thousands just like me. Just like me, but not like me.

Maybe those with unmet needs were not uniquely “lucky” to have a disability that left them with full cognitive potential. Maybe their parents were not as tenacious or as well-educated or as committed as mine, if they were present at all. Maybe they were not blessed with a school system filled with individuals determined to find their abilities, and to help them grow into their full potentials. Maybe they did not find a University institutionally and individually committed to their success, complete with tens of thousands of dollars and hundreds of compassionate person-hours of expenditures. Maybe they did not find advocates and allies at every level of Social Services, people who shepherded them through the twists and turns of a system in which so many people fall through the cracks, despite best intentions. Maybe they just didn’t have my knack for being in the right place at the right time. So many maybes…

“There but for the grace of God go I.” It may be true, but Judaism teaches that we are all partners in the work of perfecting our world. We are all partners, and hence must work to be the mechanism by which one more person gets where I am, and one more and one more, until the problems that I read about today are just another set of unfortunate moments in history. If everything happens for a reason, then I thank God for the wonderful people and opportunities in my life, and pledge to take the chance they gave me to help as many others as I can. Only by taking my unique position and dedicating myself to helping others conquer their maybes can I justify the effort, love, and blessing that went into giving me the life that I have.

This is from a man who will never rise from his wheelchair, who will never use the bathroom or brush his teeth without another person present to offer assistance…and he’s the one counting his blessings. He’s the one pledging to do as much for others as he can with the gifts he’s received!

In this week’s parashah, Tazria/M’tzora appear myriad details about the number of ways Israelites can become ritually impure and which temple offerings will bring them back into normative relationship with their community. In Leviticus 15:31, the parashah concludes, “You shall put the Israelites on guard against their impurity, lest they die through their impurity by defiling My Tabernacle which is among them.”

We learn from Sifra (a collection of midrashim on Leviticus) that, “Even though they are impure, the divine Presence still abides among them” (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition [New York: URJ Press], p. 764).

I love this passage. To me, it’s a commentary on our alloyed lives today, for none of us is pure. And yet, even though we may be blemished—even though life has unfolded in a way that has ended our “childhood innocence” (if we got to have even that)—God does not abandon us. God remains, and will always remain, part of our world. For who hasn’t been blemished by life? Whether it is by our own doing, by accident, or by genetic design, none of us spends much time in the realm of purity. Perhaps we let someone down or ran afoul of the law or were in the wrong place at the wrong time or were just born into it. Torah acknowledges that we are imperfect, gives us ways to return home, and advises us that there are dangers inherent in being “impure” (or, as most of us would likely agree, in being human).

What dangers? Probably the most prevalent one is the setting aside of ideals we may at one time have held close. Through the bruising disappointments we’ve experienced in our life, we can lose faith in our power to make a difference. We care less than we used to.

Who is Matan Koch? Besides the sweet kid—-now adult—stuck in the seat of a wheelchair, he’s a commercial litigation attorney in New York City who recently described himself to me as being “bound by nothing.” He also seems to have read Leviticus 15:31, because he ardently believes there’s a role for him to play in bettering our world. And while no one would have held it against him if he’d spent his life just trying to get by, that’s never been enough for Matan. And so, he now has extensive involvement in the disability community, performing pro bono work for parents seeking guardianship of adult children with disabilities, as well as serving on the URJ’s Disability Task Force and its Special Needs Camping Committee. And just this year, Matan was nominated by President Obama and confirmed by the U.S. Senate to the National Council on Disability.

“You shall put the Israelites on guard against their impurity, lest they die through their impurity by defiling My Tabernacle which is among them.” I might have found a nicer way to say it, but the Torah makes it clear that everyone plays a significant role in caring for God’s world. Over time, we may have lost something important; we may never have had it to begin with. But we nonetheless remain obligated to goodness and communal concern.

Are you unsure if enough of your own ideals remain for you to be among those who make that difference? I believe you can make that difference, and I think Matan Koch would agree.

  1. Excerpted from a personal e-mail sent to me by Matan Koch on June 22, 2003

Billy Dreskin is a rabbi at Woodlands Community Temple near White Plains, New York. You can contact him at RabbiBillyDreskin@gmail.com.

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4 Responses to “D’var Torah, Tazria/M’tzora: Broken Pieces of God’s World”

  1. avatar

    I was very moved by your remarks. My forty years with MS has taught me to believe much as you do. That oters who have been instrumental in my pathway through life have motivated me to keep on marching forward in spite of the challanges that I have had to face. One day at a time and the hope for better times to come for me and mine.
    My faith has enabled me through these forty years in the desert.

  2. avatar
    Denise Sherer Jacobson Reply April 30, 2012 at 6:41 pm

    While I appreciate the context of Rabbi Dreskin’s D’var Torah, I take issue with the way Matan Koch’s disability is used to illustrate the point. In essence, Koch is virtually held up as an example saying that even though he’s “stuck in a wheelchair,” he doesn’t shirk, but rather embraces, his responsibility of Tikkun Olam. I’ve often wondered why nondisabled people have such little expectation of people with disabilities of giving back or making a contribution to society. People with disabilities grow up and live in the same world as everybody else. Isn’t it natural for most humans to want to make it a better place?

    Since I have a life-long disability and use a wheelchair, a few things bother me about the premise of this Drash. First, I never think of myself as being “stuck in a wheelchair,” or even wheelchair-bound. My wheelchair liberates me and gets me where I want to go. Second, my disability is not a flaw, but rather a strength–just like my Jewishness! Yes, I’ll not deny that my life is more complicated by my disability, but I choose to believe that my experiences of having a disability have made not only my life, but the lives of other around me, richer. After all, we all benefit from diversity!

    Down through the ages, Reform rabbis have constantly taken on the task of interpreting the Torah to reflect the ever-changing times, to make writings relevant and to enlighten. We’ve come a long way in helping people rethink prejudice and derail stereotypes of other ‘marginalized’ groups. It’s time to do it for people with disabilities.

    B’Shalom,

    Denise Sherer Jacobson, Member of Temple Sinai of Oakland, California,
    Author (THE QUESTION OF DAVID: A Disabled Mother’s Journey Through Adoption, Family, and Life)

    • avatar

      Denise,

      I would not want to speak for my dear friend Rabbi Dreskin, who is obviously capable of explaining his own line of thought, but, as the subject of both his post and your response, I thought I would offer my thoughts. I do not believe that Rabbi Dreskin has little expectation of me, and in fact, since I have been privileged to learn from him since I was in my early teenage years, I can tell you that I have never felt that he had anything less than the same expectation of me that he had of any of the other young people that he has mentored so ably throughout the years.

      I rather think that Rabbi Dreskin is responding to the absolutely frank sense of gratitude and obligation that my original piece communicated, and not so subtly prodding the world that if the physical manifestations of my disability, which to the unfamiliar outside observer would appear quite limiting, are no legitimate excuse not do my part for the betterment of the world, then what does that say for the myriad of excuses that others bring to the table? I think that there is a significant difference between actually seeing me as limited and acknowledging for pedagogical purposes that the rest of the world, whatever battles they are fighting, might perceive me this way. Frankly, Rabbi Dreskin lists my credentials in his piece, and in so doing is I think simultaneously using the ingrained reaction to my disability and combating it. While Rabbi Dreskin indicates that the world might be inclined to give me a pass, the end of his piece says “Torah makes it clear that everyone plays a significant role in caring for God’s world. Over time, we may have lost something important; we may never have had it to begin with. But we nonetheless remain obligated to goodness and communal concern.” In short, Rabbi Dreskin is not giving me a pass any more than I am. Rather he is making clear that I do not have a pass, you do not have a pass, and neither does anyone else.
      I wish that, to paraphrase your words, most humans in fact wanted to make the world a better place, and in the abstract I think that most of them do. I think that many, however, aspire to do so at some point in the future while holding the belief that their current situation is too difficult to provide that opportunity. I do not take that route, and it does not sound like you do, but I am not sure that the same can be said of many with and without disabilities. My disability is far too complex a part of my life for me to label it inherently positive or negative, but it is the simple truth that it makes some things more difficult than they would be without it. In my mind, Rabbi Dreskin’s point is nothing more or less than the idea that those difficulties, which we all face in one way or another, should not be used as a justification for even our own perceived inability to do our part.

      Much more could be said about the positives and negatives of disability, but this is not the place for that. You point out that your experiences of having a disability have enriched the lives of those around you. I choose to believe that Rabbi Dreskin’s decision to highlight my situation to teach an important lesson is just another example of the same.
      Best regards,
      Matan Koch

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  1. Guilt, Privilege, and Paying Attention | Matan Koch's Blog - July 8, 2014

    […] the dozen years since I wrote this, much has changed. The lawsuit was won. My words were used by a wonderful Rabbi to teach us all. And, I no longer get quite get all of the wonderful services I got then. What hasn’t changed […]

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