by Rabbi Eric Yanoff
To kick off Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month this year, at Adath Israel, we hosted a Lunch n’ Learn on Shabbat, at which someone asked a challenging question: “Where have we fallen short? Where are we deficient?” It was an important question – but I chose to answer in the opposite, more hopeful, direction: Where should we be striving?
I’ve been thinking about this idea, of STRIVING. The act of striving – seeking something more – that, itself, the IDEAL we need to seek. Sometimes, we assume there is some “final, concrete” ideal out there – some “ideal” that retains no remaining challenges or areas where we’re not perfect. But if “STRIVING” IS our ideal – then we had BEST NOT attain such “so-called perfection” – because if we are best when we strive, then, paradoxically, we will lose our “ideal” of striving if we attain an ideal end-point.
We learn this in an interpretation from this week’s parashah: “V’Anshei kodesh tih’yun li – You shall be holy PEOPLE to Me” (Shemot 22:30). The Kotzker Rebbe understood these words to indicate that we should strive to be holy – but in a way that is human. As human beings, we are subject to temptations and faults. The Kotzker Rebbe taught, “God already has enough angels.”
According to this interpretation, especially as we confront challenges, God does not want the simple perfection of the angels, because angels are beings with a single course of action and no choice in the matter. God has enough angels. God needs ANSHEI kodesh – people, with all of our human flaws and tendencies and temptations. God needs human beings, who are striving toward perfection, not resting on our laurels at some far-off goal of flawlessness.
In any of us, flawlessness is imaginary. This month teaches us that we must see, and reach out to, and include in our conversations about inclusion – those who need that outreach… by virtue of a struggle with a mental illness, as we’ll hear about tonight… or a physical challenge, or some other difference. But I think what the Kotzker Rebbe is teaching us when in the way he understands the words “anshei kodesh” – is that we are, all of us, with all our differences, all of our frailties, holy humans…. Created in the image of God, with inestimable worth.
That does not minimize the struggles of those whom this month asks us to see more fully and include, and provide access…. It asks us to see that task NOT from “ABOVE” – but from “AMONG” – as co-strivers… all of us, ANSHEI kodesh – holy HUMANS, holy strivers, seeking to be better in our work for awareness and inclusion.
The Kotzker Rebbe knew this, first-hand – because, famously, he struggled with the challenges of mental illness, depression. For almost two decades, he could not get out of bed, and his followers would wait below his window, hoping for a gem of wisdom, if their Rebbe could manage it. Those students knew that their rabbi, struggling as he was with mental illness, had what to give. Their patience, loyalty, and awe of their teacher served the holy work of inclusion – for they knew that the Kotzker Rebbe had so much to give, even as he struggled and strived.
May we strive to be better, holy humans, knowing we are not perfect, none of us are perfect. Knowing that we are all, with all of our challenges, created in God’s image, and God’s spark burns bright within each of us. AMEN.
Rabbi Yanoff serves Adath Israel on the Main Line.