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.