Image: Eight blue walking sticks against a background of green grass. Photo by https://pixabay.com/en/walking-stick-handle-cane-handle-415810/
And the sun rose upon [Jacob] as he passed over Peniel, and he limped upon his thigh. – Genesis 32:32
Aging, illness, and accidents are part of the human condition. We know that two of our three Patriarchs had disabilities. Isaac was blind and Jacob walked with a limp.
When chronic pain issues from some old injuries began to give me trouble my primary impulse was to hide my disability. Especially in services, I felt that it was important to stand whenever the congregation stood. That was even more true if I was the one leading services. So I stood, sometimes drenched in sweat from the pain. When anyone commented about the fact that my clothes were soaked and my hair was dripping, I’d change the subject.
To make a long story short, that was a sad and stupid “solution” to my problem. I have since acquired a mobility scooter and learned how to pray sitting down. I encourage my students to be gentle with their bodies: if a temporary or permanent situation makes a particular posture painful, the answer is simple: don’t do it.
Pain doesn’t enhance Jewish prayer. I did not get extra points from God for sweating and trembling my way through the Amidah. Clinging to the furniture in front of me and trying not to cry did not make me a better Jew. Now that I sit when I need to sit, my prayers are more focused, more conscious, and I am better able to pay attention to the “still, small voice” within. (1 Kings 19)
Here are my suggestions, if standing for prayer is painful for you, or if you have any other disability that sets you apart from the congregation at prayer:
- Own the disability. Hiding or denying disability won’t make it go away. As the brilliant blogger at The Squeaky Wheelchair wrote recently, “You can’t ‘do anything you set your mind to.'” I cannot sprout wings and fly. I cannot read minds. And at this stage of my life, my body cannot stand for more than 3 minutes without pain. Owning the things that are impossible means that we are freed to take on other things – things we can do.
- Care for your body. Caring for the body is actually a mitzvah. Usually people envoke it to talk about eating right, getting checkups, and getting exercise, but it’s also about not abusing the body. Praying in postures appropriate for your body is indeed a mitzvah.
- If you need help, ask. People like to help. After all, helping is a mitzvah. You deserve to get what you need to attend services. And if you need a ramp or whatever, talk to the leadership. Maybe it isn’t possible immediately, but if you don’t ask, you don’t get!
- If you don’t want help, be as firm as you need to be about it. Sometimes people want to help, but they are inappropriate. I have learned to say “No thank you” firmly. Sometimes I have to escalate to a louder “NO!” or (rarely) even a very very loud “NO! STOP IT!” It’s sad that some people can’t learn from the first polite “no thanks,” but it is perfectly appropriate for me to be firm in taking care of myself if need be.
- Use other ways to mark standing times as different. I put my tallit [prayer shawl] (when I’m wearing it) over my head when I pray the Amidah. I cover my eyes for the Shema. I sit near the aisle, so that I can touch the Torah as it goes by.Just because I’m sitting down, doesn’t mean I can’t use my hands or even my feet. With other disabilities, you may have different options, but explore those options to get the most out of prayer!*
- You don’t have to be consistent. Some days I feel better than others. I used to worry that if I used the scooter one day, I couldn’t come in on just a cane the next. Or if I stood for the Torah service one week, I couldn’t sit down the next week. Guess what? No one gets to judge your disability, and you are not “faking” because you have a few good days. Do what you need to do. If someone foolishly comments on it (“Oh! You are getting better!”) I generally say, “I have better and worse days. This is a pretty good one.”
*Readers, if you have different disabilities, but can offer suggestions on what you’ve done to more fully participate in parts of the service, I’d love to hear from you in the Comments. I can only speak from my own experience, and I’d very much like to learn from yours.
18 thoughts on “What if it Hurts to Stand in Services?”
Very sensible advice. My mum and my aunt both have bad backs and legs. My mother uses a walker on wheels and my aunt uses a cane, though both ought to use a mobility scooter. (I sometimes have nightmare visions of the 2 sisters riding their scooter through the streets of my Israeli town, waving their canes in the air and whooping madly Yee-haa! 😀 )
Anyway, both of them try very hard to stand during the Amida and Kedusha, but there are times, especially for my aunt, when she just can’t, and so she stays seated, and no one says a word (we pray at a modern Orthodox synagogue in Israel). They are not the only ones who don’t stand.
We used to have a member who had polio as a child and had a relapse in his later years. The shul built a ramp to the entrance (it is anyway the law now in Israel to make public buildings handicapped-accessible), and they have a movable ramp for the Bima so that he, and other disabled people, could get an aliya. (The Bima has 3 steps up).
My father-in-law is more or less completely wheelchair-bound and for a long while he stopped going to the synagogue because he was embarrassed about his condition. That was very upsetting for us because he was such a dedicated shul-goer, and in England was Honorary Life President fo their shul. Eventually he got over the embarrassment and the congregants gave him such a warm welcome back that he got over his shame. He now attends regularly in his wheelchair. He is very stubborn and if he is given an Aliya he does get out of his chair and the congregants help him to the Bima (which is on the level, not up any stairs). But if he would have to sit down during the Aliya someone would bring him a chair. For the rest of the service he remains seated.
As you say, if you can’t stand, then don’t. But don’t give up going to the synagogue and don’t think your prayers are worth any less if you can’t stand.
Luckily I am not at this point in my life handicapped, but I would like to share that our student Rabbi asks us to “stand as we are able”. I really like this phrasing as I feel it makes those who cannot stand, or stand the entire time feel “less different”.
Aloha Rabbi Ruth. As if in answer to my questions of this day, here I see your thoughts. What comes to me is to embrace pain and the social discomfort that comes with it. Today I was annoyed that I have been to so many doctors in search of a diagnosis that will allow me to name what is wrong so I can know how to mitigate the pain. Yesterday I was watching a TV show and since it wasn’t recorded I could not zip through the commercials as usual.
(I wonder if younger people also see the endless stream of ads for medications of aging as we do…)
So there is a commercial for a psoriatic arthritis medication. And there was a close up photo of the associated rash. No doctor I have seen has been able to diagnose the rash and associated pain, and yet, there it was, on TV. It is a distinct rash, with a certain pattern. And yet, I have been tested for autoimmune disorders and all tests come back negative. My conclusion at this point is the test results are faulty, and I will see a specialist.
Meantime, however, I have become angry. The pain is upsetting, but more than that is the necessity to let everyone know that I cannot stand up and have a conversation like you would expect. Like you, I must sit down.
I think I will look for a folding stool type thing I can bring places, that will open to a bar stool height seat so the weight can come off my legs and I can talk with people at their same level for standing conversations. When I do ceremonies, I will perch on a bar stool, if I am in pain, rather than give up. What I do not want to do is give in to the pain. I want to live with it. I do not want to take drugs that will lead to other problems.
As for the treehouse, this poses many questions for me. After I have gone up and down five or seven times of an afternoon, I feel ready to be rolled in the front door of my home and dumped onto the sofa. My mood is dark, and I feel like I need whisky. Whisky! I cannot take nsaids. But I can drink whisky. I ask myself, is this the new normal?
I will see if our helper can take on more days. She is asking for less. I will look for more help.
But I ask myself, how many more times can I expect to ascend and descend from the trees? The answer is an unknown, and may in fact remain unknown for a long time to come. Or not. So, I prepare. I sit on the upper lanai before I begin to make the bed, and after I am done. I watch the birds. Pain makes me slow down, and there is nothing that bothers me about that.
So when I say, I am trying to embrace the pain, this is what I am talking about. Accept it, accept the limitations pain brings, and find every advantage in having to stop, park my butt somewhere, and take the world to a slower pace. I will smile when I say I have to sit down, and if there is no tall seat to grab, encourage whoever is around me to sit too. And above all, remind myself that usually walking is a good thing, even if it hurts some.
I send you hugs, and wish we were closer in the real world.
Anyone who thinks pain is ennobling or suffering brings us closer to God needs to experience some actual serious pain. You can’t think “higher” thoughts when your mind is filled with nothing but “OW!”
God created our bodies — I figure He knows what’s possible and impossible for each of them.
At least you’re not in one of the standing-sitting-kneeling churches! Aerobics for Jesus!
Ruth, thanks so much for posting this. Given that I’m out of commission for weeks here, your message was incredibly encouraging!
I am a wheelchair user. Our rabbis have begun to use the term “Rise AS we are able!”I like it because it lets me be creative in interpreting the phase. For example, it may mean I adjust my posture, or I can redirect my thought (pay more attention), or I can lift my spirit. It’s about my showing respect to God, not about worrying how others perceive me!
Yes! Another great way to phrase it!
I currently struggle with not being able to hold the heavy books. Resting books on my legs is quite painful. Thank you for the encouragement to approach the leadership about this.
Books can be a problem. If it is permitted in your congregation, one solution is to use an “app” on a tablet or smartphone for both the siddur and the chumash.
This is excellent advice and it’s important. I think a lot of people can get inside their own heads and think, “This is going to make me a better Jew,” when in reality they aren’t honoring the sacredness of their own beloved bodies. I’m not disabled, but I know the feeling of unnecessarily pushing myself despite it leading to an adverse effect.
Thanks, Mr Benzedrine! Suffering is just suffering. It’s the choices we make around it that MIGHT give it meaning. But in and of itself, it’s just a pain.
Thank you for this, Rabbi. I’m considering conversion, and I was just reading about the Amidah, and the quiet standing and the bowing that are observed. I have a disorder of my nervous system that makes standing still a fainting risk, because the blood will pool in my legs instead of going to my brain. I have thankfully never fainted outside of a medical test to see if I would, but I will usually become nauseous, sweaty, dizzy, and so on. The disorder also makes bending over very unpleasant. I can bend over, but I try to avoid it when possible because of how bad it makes me feel.
I was reading some other sources on the Amidah and disabilities, but I knew I could come to your blog and find something that rang truer to how I think we should treat our bodies than “if you can do something at all, then you must.” I will be able to stand, but not stand motionless or with my feet together, and not to make deep bows. I hope I’ll be able to find a synagogue that understands that.
Oh, Toby! I’m glad this answer was waiting for you. I would encourage you to join me in sitting for the Amidah, if there is a fainting risk. Here’s my thinking: what if you did faint? How disruptive would that be for your prayers and those of everyone else in the synagogue? What if you hit your head on the pew and did major damage?
You know what is best for you, but I encourage you to care for your body and treat it as the precious gift that it is.
One last thing: I encourage you to discuss this with your rabbi. It’s something that they will want to know, so as to be able to support you in your prayer choices.
Those are wonderful points. That’s my interpretation of pikuach nefesh – that if there’s a reasonable chance you could harm yourself, best to take care of your body and not do it! Rather than it being a strictly “you have to be in immediate risk of dying” thing. My doctor told me that many people have their first fainting episode while standing still in church/synagogue/etc. So it wouldn’t be unheard of for me to faint there, even if I hadn’t previously.
So it’s a matter of which is more appropriate: sitting, or standing while moving my body and legs around. The reason I haven’t fainted in everyday life is probably because I’m autistic, and I never stand still! I think I will join you in sitting. But I will definitely discuss things like this with my future rabbi. 🙂 I am hoping to be able to go to a synagogue soon. Because I am autistic and have other mental disabilities, it’s taking me longer than most people to become independent and live my own life away from my family.
(Why do disabilities and other struggles never seem to come as just one? But I try my best to thank G-d that “sh’asani b’tzalmo v’kirtzono” whenever I start hating myself. Especially because things like being autistic, or being a trans man, are who I am. They make me… me. The world just makes it so hard to be different. But my self-esteem has improved since finding those brachas. Even though “sh’asani kirtzono” is the Orthodox women’s blessing, I find immense comfort in saying it. To me it says: This is who I was meant to be. According to G-d’s will. Nothing is wrong with me. I am not broken.)
In the Reform service we use the blessing “sh’asani b’tzelem Elokim” – “Who made me in the image of the Holy One.” I like that blessing because it reminds me that l, a fat gimpy aging hearing impaired lesbian, am made in the image of the Holy One. Sometimes I need the reminder.
How stupid and boring would it be if the whole world looked like Barbie and Ken dolls, each identical in ability? By being exactly the persons we are, you and I each add to the mysterious beauty of the world!
Yes, I love that blessing as well – I say both in my own prayers, for extra emphasis. I’m a fat, multiply disabled, neurodivergent trans guy, but made in G-d’s image, just the way G-d wanted me.
I also found a blessing for trans people that goes “sh’asani b’tzalmo v’kirtzonah,” including both statements, and purposely mixing the genders of the Hebrew words. It reminds me that G-d is made of all genders, and has made us all to be many genders and body shapes as well.
(Is it wrong for me to say “sh’asani kirtzono” on its own, even though I am a man? A man who wants to convert Reform or Reconstructionist, at that? I know, I need my own Rabbi to ask these things.)
Love those blessings! And I think kirtzono is perfectly OK.