What if it Hurts to Stand in Services?

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.

 

 

 

 

Bipolar Disorder and Judaism

Image: David Plays for King Saul (Ernst Josephson, 1878), public domain

What does Judaism have to offer on the subject of bipolar disorder?

I’ve already written about the general topic of Judaism and Mental Illness, as well as Judaism and Depression. Today I’m going to look at Judaism’s take on bipolar disorder, also sometimes known as manic-depressive disorder.

Just as there are examples in Jewish scripture of depression (e.g. Psalm 38), there is also an example of bipolar disorder. No less an authority than the British Journal of Psychiatry has suggested that perhaps that was what was troubling King Saul in the Book of Samuel. King Saul was sometimes terribly sad and withdrawn, and his servants regarded it as an “evil spirit” come upon him. (1 Samuel 16) Saul’s illness increased, so that he was plagued with both depression and with bursts of energy (1 Samuel 18).

Verses in 1 Samuel 10 describe something that sounds like a manic episode. King Saul comes upon some prophets, and is himself caught up in a prophetic frenzy. People who witnessed this episode commented that it was not typical of King Saul. Over time, Saul became paranoid, sure that David was going to seize his kingdom by treachery. King Saul was a man of great charisma and promise who ultimately committed suicide on Mount Gilboa. (1 Samuel 31)

The Book of Samuel accounts for Saul’s behavior by talking about the “spirit of God” descending upon or removing itself from Saul as punishment for his disobedience to God’s orders. Characters in the book wonder if he is possessed by an evil spirit at times. Modern day Jews do not believe in “evil spirits” and instead see behaviors like Saul’s to be manifestations of mental illness. We don’t believe that mental or physical illness is a “punishment from God” – rather, both are medical conditions with natural causes. 

It is a sacred duty, a mitzvah, to treat any person with mental illness with compassion. That duty extends not only to others but to ourselves.

Also, because it is a mitzvah to care for the body, if one suspects they have bipolar disorder, it is a mitzvah to seek medical care and to take the advice of one’s doctors seriously. This can be very challenging, since mental health care is by no means as easily available as it should be, and there is much room for improvement in treatment protocols.

Treatment for bipolar disorder can be a challenge. Therefore it is up to the rest of us, to friends and family and community, to support anyone who suffers with the illness to whatever extent we can.

 

A Fragile Home

image

My body is a sukkah
A fragile home
It trembles and sways
unreliably
But the beating heart endures.

Ufros aleinu sukat shelomecha
Shelter us with your peace
In these frail bodies
Shelter us with love
That anchors us to earth
Shelter us with knowledge
And wisdom
Shelter us

Amen.

I am not going to be able to put up a sukkah this year, since I spent much of this past week in hospital. I am home now, recovering and thinking about the fragility of life.

The Inclusion Confession

I am reposting this vidui from Zeh LeZeh, the Ruderman Family Foundation blog, by permission of the writer. There are many reasons I am proud to call Rabbi Schorr my colleague, but none more than this prayer. If you are interested in Judaism and disability issues, I strongly recommend Zeh LeZeh (For One Another) as a wonderful source of learning.   – Rabbi Adar

By: Rabbi Rebecca Schorr

The central section of the Yom Kippur liturgy is the public confession known as the “viddui.” Originally patterned after the priestly narrative of Yom Kippur in Leviticus 16, the current iteration, with its poetic catalogue of sins, is the work of our rabbinic sages, who believed that the best way to have mastery over our behaviors is to recognize, name, and internalize our wrongdoings. Only then can we hope to overcome them. Following the traditional rubric, this new viddui is meant to help us recognize, name, and internalize the many ways we continue to exclude those in our community whose abilities differ from ours.

For the sin that we have sinned before You under duress and willingly; and for the sin we have  sinned before You through the hardness of heart.

For the sin that we have sinned before You by failing to include every member of our community.

For the sin that we have sinned before You by making it difficult for those who are different to find their places in our synagogues, schools, and organizations

and for the sin that we have sinned before You for thinking that we are doing all that we can.

For all these, O God of mercy,

forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

For the sin that we have sinned before You by building ramps without widening doorframes.

For the sin that we have sinned before You for dedicating seats for those with mobility difficulties without constructing accessible bathrooms.

For the sin that we have sinned before You for installing assisted hearing devices and allowing speakers who believe themselves to have loud voices to speak without using the sound system

and for the sin that we have sinned before You for believing we are being inclusive when we don’t truly include all.

For all these, O God of mercy,

forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

For the sin that we have sinned before You by using words to tear down rather than build up.

For the sin that we have sinned before You by not removing words from our vocabulary that are outdated, outmoded, and unacceptable.

For the sin that we have sinned before You for standing idly by while our family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers use words like “retard” or “retarded” to describe a person or situation

and for the sin that we have sinned before You by not speaking out when these words are  bandied about by rock stars, sports figures, and pop icons.

For all these, O God of mercy,

forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

For the sin that we have sinned before You for staring at the child having the public tantrum and assuming he needs better discipline.

For the sin that we have sinned before You for judging that child’s mother rather than offering her a sympathetic glance.

For the sin that we have sinned before You by accommodating those with physical limitations while not making accommodations for those with developmental limitations

and for the sin that we have sinned before You by not providing support and respite for the parents and caregivers.

For all these, O God of mercy,

forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

For the sin that we have sinned before You under duress and willingly; and for the sin we have sinned before You through the hardness of heart.

For the sin that we have sinned before You turning away from those who seem different.

For the sin that we have sinned before You by putting those who seem different into categories such as “less able” and “undesirable.”

For the sin that we have sinned before You for failing to recognize a piece of You in every soul.

For ALL these, O God of mercy, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

Ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr is a CLAL Rabbis Without Borders Fellow, a contributing author of The New Normal: Blogging Disability, and the editor of the CCAR Newsletter. Writing at her blog, This Messy Life, Rebecca finds meaning in the sacred and not-yet-sacred intersections of daily life. Engage with her on Twitter!

How Can I Bless, After a Stroke?

A regular reader asked: “Rabbi, I want to say a blessing before eating, but since my stroke it is hard for me to remember the words of all the blessings. Is there a “one size fits all” blessing which I could say?

First of all, good for you! Saying blessings before eating is a wonderful practice.

Because language provides many different challenges to people, here are several suggestions. Choose whichever you think might be helpful in your case.

  • You can say blessings in English if that would be easier for you. That is a perfectly valid option and not “cheating.”
  • For blessings over food, consider printing them out and putting the paper or card near where you eat. This page from MyJewishLearning.com would work nicely for that purpose.
  • The CCAR Press offers a nice app you can have as close as your smartphone or tablet: An App for Blessings
  • There is no official “one size fits all” food blessing, but you could try using these two if you like:
    • For a meal that includes any wheat product, the blessing hamotzi (follow link to the text) covers the entire meal, except for wine.
    • For a snack or meal that does not include bread, you could use the shehakol blessing (again, linked.) Some readers may point out that that isn’t quite traditional, but the literal words of the blessing seem to me to cover the subject sufficiently – definitely better than no blessing at all.
  • If you are sitting and looking at the food and can’t recall what to say, and your cue sheet isn’t nearby, here’s what you can do. Say: “Blessed are you, Adonai our God, who provides [name the food] for me.”
  • If there are other Jews present who know the blessing, invite them to bless, then say “Amen.”

Let’s take this one step farther, in case someone with aphasia searches this question and reads this. Let’s say speech is very difficult, or recalling words is difficult. You are ready to eat, and the blessing just isn’t there, or isn’t going to come out of your mouth. In such a case, I suggest you look at the food. Let the intention of the blessing enter your heart: appreciate God’s creation and this gift to you, God’s creature. Now eat. God knows what you just said with your heart.

Most of all, remember that this is not a contest. There’s a very famous story that applies here. I’m going to quote Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, since she tells it so well:

The story is told that once the Baal Shem Tov, the great Chasidic teacher, was leading a prayer service. Within the congregation there was a simple shepherd boy, who could barely read. He didn’t know any of the prayers. But as the Baal Shem Tov led the congregation, the boy was so moved that he wanted to pray. Instead of the words of the prayers, he began to recite the letters of the alef-bet. He said, “Oh God, I don’t know the words of the prayers, I only know all these letters. Please, God, take these letters and arrange them into the right order to make the right words.” The Baal Shem Tov heard the boy’s words and stopped all the prayers. “Because of the simple words of this boy,” he said, “all of our prayers will be heard in the highest reaches of Heaven.”

May our blessings, however fragmentary we feel them to be, speak our truths to the Holy One of Blessing. May the act of blessing itself bless us and our communities, near and far.

Judaism and Mental Illness – a Question

There has suddenly been a run on the post Judaism and Mental Illness, which I originally posted in October of 2013. In July alone, there have been nearly a thousand “hits” or readings of that column. What is going on?

I’m glad people are finding it useful – at least, I hope that’s what’s happening – but I have to confess, I’m curious too. If you know, would you post a comment and let me in on the secret?

A Visit to the Contemporary Jewish Museum

Today Linda and I had a business meeting over in San Francisco. I’ve been dithering forever about taking BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) on my scooter, and I figured today was a great opportunity, since we were going together.

BART is great for reading San Francisco without having to park or fight traffic on the Bay Bridge. It is less than lovely in some other ways, namely, the hard-to-find elevators and the sometimes-rude riders. I practically had to run over a guy to get him to allow me my wheelchair spot on the train.

After our business meeting, we stopped to get a sandwich and then traveled a few short blocks to the Contemporary Jewish Museum. I am embarrassed to say this was my first visit, since mobility fears had kept me away.

The facility is truly beautiful and wonderfully accessible. I never once had any problem accessing anything, and the security guard was extremely pleasant. Architecturally, the building is a fabulous mix of old and new, the old Pacific Gas & Electric Jessie Street Substation with a dynamic contemporary structure by architect Daniel Libeskind.

Exhibits at the CJM are staggered so that there’s always something interesting to see. We toured Bound to be Held: A Book Show by Josh Green. It was an intriguing combination of elements: a collection of books donated by famous and private individuals, with personalizations (“Read by Famous”) and The Library of Particular Significance, a lending-library of 1,000 books significant to the people who donated them, with which viewers could interact via post-its or by (imagine that!) reading them. It was both fun and thought-provoking.

The current work on view in In that Case: Havruta in Contemporary Art was somewhat less engaging for us. Bay Area visual artist Anthony Discenza collaborated with New York-based author of horror novels Peter Straub to present a piece on Das Beben, a nineteenth century artistic movement who apparently managed to have themselves and their work burnt up in not one but two catastrophic fires. None of their actual work survives; we were apparently supposed to imagine it from the descriptions. We were mystified and left feeling a bit stupid, but we tried!

We are now members of the museum and will return to see other exhibits soon. It’s a wonderful building and clearly the curators are looking to challenge visitors. If you are in the Bay Area or planning to visit, I recommend it!

Contemporary Jewish Museum
736 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
415.655.7800

Approaching the museum from Mission Street, with the old PG&E substation on view.
Approaching the museum from Mission Street, with the old PG&E substation on view.