This week’s Torah portion lists certain physical blemishes that disqualify a cohen (priest) from fulfilling certain of his duties in the Tabernacle, and later in the Temple. At first reading, it raises the question of why physical disabilities or challenges should impact the individual’s ability to perform a spiritual service. And viewing it from a theological standpoint, since Hashem created these individuals the way they are, why are they seemingly ‘punished’? How do we resolve these questions? G-d forbid, that anyone should use these verses to justify discrimination!
The Jewish response to suffering is not to judge but to reach out with compassion and support. Only Hashem truly knows the underlying reason for everything that happens in this world – we do not. Jewish ethics insists that all of Hashem’s deeds have an ultimate purpose for the benefit of His creation.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov was a great story-teller and in his well-known tale called “The Seven Beggars” he discusses a group of individuals each of whom has a significant physical disability. As we read the story we slowly discover that each one’s handicap is actually the very source of his strength. The classic lesson taught from this story is that each of us is like these beggars as we live our time on this earth. Life has a way of thrusting us into difficult circumstances and we find that correctly responding to the challenges that life throws at us actually turns our weaknesses or imperfections into personal strength and maturity. In fact, the Ba’al Shem Tov taught that it is through identifying our greatest challenges that we determine our individual path to personal spiritual greatness.
Who of us has not been inspired by men and women who achieve a tremendous amount in this world from the confines of a wheelchair, for example? Most particularly are we challenged by these heroes when we observe their lack of bitterness about their situation. Their choice to reject self-pity and resentment and to adopt instead a positive attitude and build something significant with their lives sets a standard for all of us. Some of our ‘handicaps’ may not be so visibly obvious as being in a wheelchair, but a challenge is a challenge. Their triumph over a very visible handicap encourages us to overcome whatever our own struggle may be.
Although on the surface it may seem ‘unfair’ to impose restrictions on the blemished cohen, only Hashem truly knows what each person needs in their life to achieve their personal greatness. The message to us is that ultimately it is the attitude and subsequent behavior of the handicapped cohen that determines the depth and breadth of his spiritual growth.
Some may consider this a hard pill to swallow. Every generation has more than their share of “Why me?” or “Why did this happen to us?” The underlying issue is always related to our understanding of the meaning and purpose of life.
Just this past week, I was speaking with a friend who is approaching his 60th birthday. He related to me that in recent days, he has been preoccupied with asking himself, “What have I done with my life? I’m almost ready to retire — what good have I done for others? Is there some project I could undertake now that would really define my contribution to humanity?”
My friend has no visible physical impairments but like all of us, he has his own personal challenges. As we continued our conversation, he made this statement, “You know, it’s true that I’ve achieved a fair amount of success in life but as I look at 60 and what follows, I am realizing how fragile and deceptive career success can be. What I’m asking myself now is whether or not my professional success has made me a better person, a better husband, a better father, a better human being, somebody who has made my world a better place by being here? Or have I just occupied space and served myself and my own goals and ambitions?”
When we perceive life on a superficial level alone, we fail to grasp the opportunities life presents us for spiritual advancement. As my friend said at the end of our conversation, “What really has come to the forefront of my thinking is this: what will I take with me into Olam Haba (the world to come)?”
I have mentioned this in previous commentaries but it bears repeating. In Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of the Fathers), we read that this world is like the lobby of the world to come. Therefore, we are to prepare ourselves in this world that we may enter the banquet hall of the King.
Like the cohanim who were prevented from performing the Temple service, and like every other human being who faces physical and/or mental challenges, we, too, face the challenge of recognizing that our weaknesses and disabilities are actually our hidden blessings for it is through them that we achieve levels of greatness IF — and its a big IF — we will make the right choices about how we respond to our ‘handicaps’.
In Tune with Torah this week = honestly facing those issues in our own lives that we find most difficult and resolve with Hashem’s help to embrace them and grow through them, rather than resent their presence in our lives.