Friday, November 13, 2009

A Thought on the Parsha

After the climax of the akeida at the end of last week's parsha, Avraham and Sarah quickly disappear from the scene in this week's parsha. Sarah, of course, dies at the very beginning of the parsha, but even Avraham quickly fades into the background. The spotlight moves to Avraham's servant, to Rivka and her family, and then to Yitzchak. While Avraham remarries and sires many children, this appears almost as a footnote, and we read soon thereafter of his death and burial.

Now, we would expect this fading out of Avraham when the story shifts its focus to Yitzchak, as it does in Parshat Toldot (and as Yitzchak fades into the background when Yaakov moves to the foreground in Parshat Vayetze). However, in Chayei Sarah, Yitzchak has not yet moved to center stage, and yet Avraham has already faded into the background. Why is that?

I believe what we are seeing is Avraham's retirement. Avraham has struggled all his life. To call out in the name of God, to battle kings and to save his nephew, to deal with kings who would take his wife, but most of all to have a son who would succeed him. Finally, after much struggle - first in believing in a divine promise that was not materializing, then in believing it to have been fulfilled through Yishmael only to see that possibility rejected by God, then in finally having a son through Sarah only to have it followed by God's incomprehensible command to bring his son as a sacrifice, and then in offering his son up only to be told to take him down - finally, finally, he has the son that he has been promised, and all is well. "Va'Hashem berakh et Avraham b'kol," "And God blessed Avraham with everything" (Breishit 24:1). Avraham has the son that he has always prayed for, and he has achieved the pinnacle of his service to God - "Atah ya'dati ki y'rei E-lohim atah," "Now I know that you are fearing of God," (Breishit 22:12). He has achieved all that he has set out to achieve, and his struggles are over.

But with the end of struggle, also comes the end of challenge, the end of meaning and of purpose. Consider the contrast that we are presented with at the end of Vayera (this was pointed out to me by my dear friend, Rabbi Yitzchak Halberstam. I also understand that Dr. Uriel Simon has made the same point). Avraham comes down from the mountain after almost sacrificing his one son that Sarah bore to him at his advanced age, and what does he hear? That, in the meanwhile, his brother, Nachor, has effortlessly had eight children through his wife, Milkah. And Avraham is the one with the blessing! But such is the case - a blessing means work, a blessing means struggle. Avraham is at the center of history. Every part of Avraham's life is imbued with meaning - for him, and for future generations. Meanwhile, his brother Nachor might be having eight children and living the good life, but he does not exist on the historical scene. His life is not one of significance, not one of meaning.

What then happens to Avraham after he has achieved all that he has struggled for, when he stops struggling? He moves into retirement and off of center stage. He may now have six more children and another wife, but they are nothing more than a footnote, a parentheses. It is his life of struggle that produced Yitzchak, that presented him with ten challenges that he lived up to in his service of God, that is the life worth recording, that is the life of historical meaning.

A similar point was made this week in an Op-Ed piece by Ross Douthat in the New York Times. He argues that since the fall of the Berlin Wall, which occurred twenty years ago this week, the West and Democracy has ceased to be truly threatened in an existential way. As a result, we have lost our sense of purpose. He states:

And it may be that the only thing more frightening than the possibility of annihilation is the possibility that our society could coast on forever as it is. . . Humankind fears judgment, of course. But we depend on it as well. The possibility of dissolution lends a moral shape to history: we want our empires to fall as well as rise, and we expect decadence to be rewarded with destruction. Not that we want to experience this destruction ourselves. But we want it to be at least a possibility - as a spur to virtue, and as a punishment for sin.

Struggle gives purpose to our lives. More than that, only those things that we struggle for, that we sacrifice for, are the things that we truly hold dear. This point is made in the Jewish context by Yishayahu Leibowitz in "Religious Praxis" (in Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State). There he compares the symbol of Christianity - the cross- with a somewhat analogous Jewish symbol of sacrifice - the akeida. Both speak to the notion of sacrifice, but in profoundly different ways:

[Christianity's] symbol, the cross, represents the sacrifice God brought about for the benefit of mankind. In contrast, the highest symbol of Jewish faith is the stance of Abraham on Mount Moriah, where all human values were annulled an overridden by fear and love of God. . . No doubt a religion of values, an "endowing religion" such as Christianity. . . is capable of gratifying certain psychic needs. Today, "seekers of religion" or "seekers of God" in order "to fill a vacuum in the soul" are legion. Such a religion is likely therefore to attain some popularity. It will never become an educative force. Men like comforting religions which require no effort, but they do not revere them or take them seriously. It is a basic psychological fact that men respect and adore only that which is demanding, which requires sacrifices and imposes duties."

It is in this vein that the midrash teaches that "Three great gifts were given to the Jewish people. . . are acquired only through suffering. . . and they are: Torah, the Land of Israel, and the World-to-Come." (Sifrei vaEtchanan). To achieve the things that are most important, we must struggle to achieve them. And though our struggle to achieve them, they become most important to us.

Anything truly worthwhile in our lives, anything worth having, anything that we treasure, is a thing that we have had to work for, a thing that we have had to sacrifice for.

Just as it was with Avraham's struggles on account of his children before and after they were born, just as it was with all our foremothers who were childless and struggled to have children, so it is with all of us and our children. The more we sacrifice, the more with invest in our children, the more we endure tza'ar giddul banim, the pains of child rearing, whether we want to or not, the stronger our bond with them is, the more they mean to us, the more every moment with them is imbued with meaning.

As Devorah and I wrote in our Jewish Week article, it is an ongoing struggle raising children with "invisible disabilities." There has been much tza'ar giddul banim. Sometimes it has felt like more than we could handle. But now the bar mitzvah of our oldest son is coming up, and we look back and see how much he has grown, how much he has matured and accomplished, and how much he has overcome. And it is because of our struggle over the years, and because of his struggle and his endurance, that every accomplishment is so sweet and so meaningful.

For every one of us, we must make sure that we do not move into an early retirement from life, from its struggles and from its accomplishments. Let us make sure never to lose sight of those things that are truly important - God, Torah, the Land of Israel, Klal Yisrael, and of course, our family and our children. Let us always be prepared to endure the struggle that is necessary, necessary because what we struggle for is so important, and necessary because it is through the struggle that they will become ever so important to us.

Torah from Our Beit Midrash

As I mentioned, in hilkhot Niddah we have been learning the topic of bedikat shiva nikkiyim, the internal checking that a woman does during the seven days after cessation of bleeding. In general, it is a question how relevant the Brisker approach to learning - an approach which posits a chakira, two competing conceptual definitions of a law, and then makes all debates dependant on this question - is relevant to the world of halakha. What is interesting about the topic we learned this week is that at least as far as a number of Rishonim and almost all of the Achronim are concerned, all the halakhic debates revolve around the question of how we conceptualize the nature of these bedikot, these internal checks. Is the purpose of the bedikot to establish that the woman is not bleeding, or - given that she already did a hefsek taharah, a check when she first stopped bleeding, and has already established that fact - the purpose is more to serve the formal function of counting the days and/or designating them formally as nikkiyim, as blood-free days. In the Amoraim, this could be the debate about what constitutes the bare minimum checking according to R. Eliezer in the mishna - is it the first and last days (formally bracketing and thus designating the entire period) or is it the first OR the last day (which could verify lack of bleeding, but does not designate the entire 7 days in the same way). In the Rishonim, this is probably the debate around whether, according to Rav, checking a middle day alone could work (Ra'avad, Rosh, Rashba - because this would suffice to determine lack of bleeding) or not (Razah, Ra'ah, others - because a middle day cannot define the 7 day unit, for which at least 1 if not 2 endpoints are needed).

In terms of practical halakha, we rule that a woman must check all 7 days lichatchila, ab initio, and at least 1 AND 7 b'dieved, post facto. Nevertheless, this debate still plays out in the Achronim regarding a number of cases (for an extended discussion, see Sidrei Taharah 196:18) . The approach that sees a need for a formal counting could lead to more demands, such as the need to have intent and always be somewhat aware that one is in the middle of shiva nikkiyim (Me'il Tzedakah - adopted by many Achronim, but also rejected by many others), or the need to check only during the day and not at night (also debated). The Shala goes so far to say that a woman needs to verbally count the days, but this is roundly rejected. However, it could also lead to fewer demands at times - such as the position of Rav Moshe Feinstein and the Badei HaShulkhan that a woman can do a bedikah soon after she does an internal wash. As a way of determining that she is no longer bleeding, such a check would not be too meaningful, but if the only purpose is to formally designate the days as clean this would suffice.

It goes without saying that our shiur and discussion did not end with this fascinating conceptual analysis. We spent a good deal of time discussing not only bottom line halakha in these areas, but how to be properly sensitive to the challenges - both practical and psychological - that can arise around bedikot, and how to be as responsive as possible to these realities within the demands of halakha.

Happenings at the Yeshiva

With our third- and fourth-year students, we continued learning Niddah in the morning - we are now covering the topics of hefsek taharah and shiva nikkiyim - and Lifecycles in the afternoon. Thursday was a particularly packed day. After my regular shiur on Niddah, I met with the students of that shiur over lunch to discuss the challenges and problematics of learning and paskening hilkhot niddah, given the way the system and the discourse objectifies women and their bodies. While it is clear that halakha does this all the time - whether to pots and pans, to men's bodies, or to women's bodies - such an objectifying system raises unique challenges in the context of women and niddah. There was obviously no resolution to this challenge, but - as I said to our students - it is better that they, rather than someone who is oblivious to or dismissive of these issues, are the ones who will be paskening for their communities. I am proud that we have created a yeshiva where these issues can be discussed openly and honestly, and where we can hold the tension without seeking easy and less than fully honest resolutions.

Also on Thursday, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin visited the yeshiva and gave a parsha shiur, elaborating on the connection between kiddushin, Sarah's burial, and Avraham's purchase of her burial plot. He followed this with a talk to third- and fourth-year students on giving sermons. Following that, these same students heard from Dr. Steve Glicksman on male adolescence and masturbation. We will be finishing this conversation next week when we will have a Lifecycles halakha shiur on masturbation, zera li'vatala, and sexual touch, negiah.

This monday I gave the last lecture in my series on Women in the Synagogue and Communal Leadership at the JCC of Manhattan. The audio is posted on my blog and on our website and the source sheets should be up in the next day or two.

Finally, we extend a nechama to Rob Golder and his family on the loss of his grandmother. Hamakom yenachem etchem b'toch she'ar avalei Tzion vi'Yerushalayim.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

'Invisible Disability’ Kids Are Being Left Out

by Dov Linzer And Devorah Zlochower
The Jewish Week, Op-Ed
November 10, 2009

We are the parents of two children with what are often termed “invisible disabilities.” Invisible disabilities can include learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorders and Asperger’s syndrome, Tourette’s syndrome and other tic disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder and other anxiety disorders, mood disorders and behavioral disorders.

Why are these disabilities “invisible?” When you see our children and others similarly diagnosed, you think they are “typical” children. These kids are often verbal and sometimes highly articulate; they are of average intelligence and even extremely bright, and their ability to maneuver physically, socially and emotionally in the real world seems unimpaired.

In reality, these kids are dealing with a lot of complex issues. Many of these children find our loud, smelly, busy world overwhelming and may take refuge by shutting the rest of us out. Some seek out even more sensation and have difficulty modulating their voices, sitting still or remaining quiet. Many of them have trouble making and keeping friends despite an often passionate desire to do so. A need for order and control may make the regular, chaotic play of many children unappealing or scary.

More profoundly, these disabilities are invisible because these children have become invisible in our community. Synagogues do not provide Shabbat programming for children who cannot handle the standard Shabbat groups or junior congregation. Day schools do not educate many of these children, and prayer services in synagogue are not welcoming places for these families.

While there have been a number of stories in the Jewish media recently about the rare programs that do exist, more often, families like ours hear that such programs are too expensive and serve too few children to make them viable. We in turn have pulled away from the community in our search to have our children’s needs met.

We send our children to secular schools and camps that serve the special needs population, we consult with psychologists, psychiatrists and neurologists rather than our rabbis, and we create community with each other, the folks who “get it.” And we convince ourselves that we are doing just fine all by ourselves.

The truth is that we and our children need the support and acceptance of our community. We have asked for help in the past, but we have been told “no” so many times that by now we feel it is futile to ask. And we are angry — angry because our children survive by our advocating for them, and advocacy is not always pretty.

Our synagogues and our Jewish communal institutions need to become safe spaces where we can bring our children, confident that their behavior will be tolerated or, better yet, understood. Our children are entitled to learn and live their Jewish heritage, and they cannot fully do so if they continue to exist at the margins of the Jewish community.

We can’t do it alone. We are overextended emotionally and financially. We worry every day about our children’s future. Will they be able to make a living? Will they marry? How will they manage when we are gone? And we have current worries, too. Will we be able to continue to afford the education, the therapies, and the medications that our children need?

We have been forced to accept that we will not find a place for our children in the Jewish day schools, but we can no longer tolerate that this extends to our synagogues as well. For our children, inclusion in the prayer services and programming at synagogue is a last chance to be part of the Jewish community, and they are being pushed out with both hands.

We want to be a part of the community, desperately. But to do so our children must be made welcome. What does that mean? Rabbis and community leaders need to become educated about these populations and they need to share this knowledge with the community.

Address our issues from the pulpit. Teach that Jewish values of inclusion, of justice, of caring, extend to our children as well. Help parents instill in their “typical” children the value of befriending children that are not exactly like them and their peers. Teach all of us that the true worth of the individual goes beyond academic achievement, athletic ability, and earning power.

Develop community programming. Talk to us; we have developed, of necessity, a great deal of expertise on what works and what does not work for our children. Ask us if something can be done to modify existing programs so that they can meet the needs of our children. Seek our input when creating new programs. Our families are hungry for Jewish programming and you will find us willing partners if you just open the door to us.

Most importantly, speak to our children and recognize them for the beautiful souls they are. Our children are poets, artists, philosophers and psychologists; their emotional and spiritual lives are deep and intense ones. Our children are valued by their peers, special educators, and therapists; show them that they are valued by the Jewish community as well.

Rabbi Dov Linzer is Rosh HaYeshiva and dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School. Devorah Zlochower teaches at SAR High School; she served as Rosh Beit Midrash and Director of Full-Time Studies at Drisha Institute for many years.