Parashat Kedoshim 5782

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A Stumbling Block Before the Blind
A D’var Torah for Parashat Kedoshim
By Rabbi Jill Hackell (’13)

Parashat Kedoshim contains many laws that outline a path toward leading a holy life. Although some of these are mystifying (e.g. the laws of shatnez – a prohibition against wearing clothing made from a mixture of wool and linen), the preponderance of these laws deal with the way one treats our fellow human beings. “Love your fellow as yourself” [Leviticus 19:18] can be seen as a summary of all these laws. If we can picture ourselves in the place of our fellow and treat her as we would want to be treated, then we will be living as we are meant to live.

One law tells us, “You shall not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind” [19:14].

Our tradition tends to interpret this law broadly and metaphorically, applying it to one who is not literally blind, but blind to a particular situation. The Sifra supplies some specifics:

“…If they ask you for advice, do not give them advice that is unfit for them. Do not say: ‘Leave early in the morning,’ so that robbers should assault them; ‘Leave in the afternoon’, so they fall victim to the heat. Do not say to him ‘sell your field and buy a donkey’ and you take advantage and take [his field] from him…” [Sifra, Kedoshim, Section 2:14]

Blindness to a specific situation is a weakness which we are commanded not to exploit. Other examples given to us by our tradition include: “one who strikes his adult son” [B.T. Moed Katan 17a] – on the grounds that this will make the son angry, and perhaps tempt him to strike back and cause him to violate the prohibition against mistreating one’s parents. Another case is offering a cup of wine to a nazarite (one who has taken an oath not to drink wine) [B.T. Pesahim 22b] – because that is putting temptation in front of someone who is trying to uphold his often difficult vow. In our time this would translate to offering alcohol to a recovering alcoholic, or chocolate to someone you know is on a diet.

But I’d like to bring us back to a more literal meaning of not putting a stumbling block before the blind. Those who are blind or otherwise disabled in our society have to deal with many stumbling blocks. We don’t place them purposely, but by building a society that dismisses the needs of people with disabilities, we most assuredly place them. Think of traffic lights which manage the flow of pedestrians across intersections. Some, but not enough cities have installed sound cues so that a blind person can know when it is safe to cross. Think about a disabled person in a wheelchair. So many of our curbs, our subway stations, our buildings, even our synagogue bimas are still not wheelchair accessible. Watch the short film “The Commute,” for a perspective that can open our eyes to stumbling blocks we don’t even realize are there.

In Israel, by the Jaffa port, is a place called Na Laga’at – “Please touch”.  It is a non-profit arts and cultural center that “represents a meeting place between deaf, blind, and deaf-blind individuals together with the general public.”  I dined at a restaurant at the center. This restaurant is completely devoid of light. All light sources (phones, etc.) must be checked in lockers before one enters. Eyes do not “adjust” to the dark, because there is nothing to adjust to.  All the waiters are blind. They know the location of all the tables and the passageways between the tables. They know the exact placement of the dishes on the tables. They know how to recognize each other’s location by the bells on their clothing. We, the guests, are lost. We are led to our tables by holding on to the shoulders of the waiters. We are seated with others we cannot see. We are taught how to tell whether there is water in our glass.  We are the blind ones. We must negotiate this world that the waitstaff navigates with ease. Some guests can’t stand it and leave, shaken and frightened.  But those of us who dine there come out with a better understanding of what it is like for someone to live in a world that was not designed to include them – a world that so often puts a stumbling block before them.

Parashat Kedoshim asks us to love our fellow as ourselves. To do so, we must imagine ourselves in their place. But that is not enough.  We must work to improve things so that our world can truly become accessible to all.
Rabbi Jill Hackell M.D. (AJR ’13) is the rabbi of West Clarkstown Jewish Center in New City, N.Y. She also serves on the AJR Board, as liaison to ARC (Association of Rabbis and Cantors), and teaches bioethics in both secular and Jewish settings, including as an adjunct faculty member at AJR.