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The Holiness Code: Torah Reflections from Central Members (5782/2021)

September 17, 2021 | General News | Worship and High Holidays

On Yom Kippur afternoon we read a section of the Torah known as the holiness code. This section, found in chapter 19 of Leviticus, is at the heart of the Torah and contains some of the most moving commandments within our tradition. We asked two of our members to reflect upon one of these commandments. They did so just after we chanted from the Torah. We are grateful for their personal and moving insights which are shared below:

Marcia Gottfried 

“Do not put a stumbling block before the blind” from Leviticus seems pretty straightforward in what it is telling us to do.  However, people living with mental health issues or developmental or physical disabilities encounter stumbling blocks all the time and those may not be obvious to the rest of us.

I had always wanted to be a mother and felt that I would be a good parent.  My prayers were answered on December 6, 1994 when I gave birth to our son.  He loved to be held, but I noticed that he seemed uncomfortable in a variety of ways.  I definitely questioned my parenting as he was difficult to soothe.  I reported what was going on with him to the pediatrician and my anxiety at being a new parent was brought up by the doctor – this perception of me would become a stumbling block.  I never denied that I was an anxious person but I felt there was more going on with our son.

We wanted him to attend a synagogue preschool.  We knew he would need extra help in the classroom so we went to the Department of Education to ask for a special ed itinerant teacher to support him.  At the DOE, they questioned my son’s needs.  With tears in my eyes, I tried to explain why he needed this support to be successful.

After our son had attended the synagogue preschool for a while, the director told me that he needed different support and recommended special education.  I was crushed.  What did this mean for our son?

We found a school that we thought was right for him.  Once approved by the DOE, he started attending this school.  He had amazing support there.  In addition, I was given the gift of other parents who understood this journey – these parents are among my closest friends to this day.

After a couple of years, the school recommended that he transition to a mainstream school, but that did not work out as he could not handle the academic work, even with extensive support.  So, we found him another special ed school.

In the midst of our struggles, we were planning his Bar Mitzvah.  The synagogue that we were members of paired him up with another child – and not just any child but one who went to an elite private school and who spoke Hebrew fluently.  I explained to the rabbi that our son should not be paired with another child and not be asked to fit into the traditional Bar Mitzvah structure.  I suggested an alternative service.  I was told that this was not possible – the rabbi made it clear that none of the clergy would do a service outside of the synagogue or even a Havdalah service nor would they loan us anything to use for a service.

This was a major stumbling block!  I was in great distress and told the social worker who ran the social group our son was in what was happening – and she suggested that I talk to her daughter who, as it happened, was about be ordained as a rabbi!  She agreed to tutor our son and conduct the service. I felt like this was a gift from G-d.

On Dec 8, 2007, our son stood before our family and friends and chanted Torah, led us in prayer, read his Dvar Torah and lifted his voice in song – it was perfect and it was tailored to his strengths.  It was one of the happiest days in my life – my heart was bursting with pride!

Even with his Bar Mitzvah success, he was struggling, academically, socially and emotionally.  With a heavy heart, we decided to send him to a residential school.

After months of dealing with the DOE and searching across the Northeast, we found a school with a self-paced learning program that seemed to be a good match for him.  When we told our son we were sending him to a residential school out of state, an extraordinary thing happened – he said “You did this for me?”, and he started to cry.  He was grateful – I could never have imagined this reaction!  I was blown away.

After 7 years at this school, it was time for him to leave, as at age 21 you are finished with the DOE and you now need to navigate the adult services system.  We moved him back to  New York.  We found social opportunities for him at the JCC on the Upper West Side, which had programming for people with special needs.  Through friends he made there, he was introduced to a neuro-diverse theater company called The EPIC Players that is dedicated to creating professional performing opportunities for individuals with developmental disabilities.

Also through his involvement with the JCC, he was able to get an internship with the UJA which led to his current job where he is employed by a corporate catering company and working in a law firm’s café.

We are still on an evolving journey with an uncertain future.  Things that are good enough for now may quickly change for any number of reasons.  Our son wants to have a family of his own and we would love him to be able to fulfill his dreams.  I want him to have a community that supports him – that includes a Jewish one.  The path from here to there is never a straight line – it is actually quite zigzagged.  I feel like stumbling blocks are all around us and I try to desperately keep him from stumbling.

I want to live forever so I can be here to help him navigate the world but I know that cannot be, so today I say “Hineni” – here I am, I’ve got your back – but like most parents who have children with disabilities, I want to know who will be there when I am not – to reach out and lift him up when he stumbles.                                            

David Edelson

The Holiness Code in Leviticus 19:14 commands us not to insult the deaf or put a stumbling-block before the blind. God, the original master of metaphor, implores us not to mistreat or take advantage of anyone who is disabled, whether physically or intellectually.

“Don’t do it,” God is telling us. How depressing that God feels compelled to remind us of this most basic level of human decency. Shouldn’t we know better than to engage in such spiteful behavior?

My youngest brother, Josh, has Down syndrome. He has 47 chromosomes, while most human beings have 46. Josh looks and sounds different, and he sometimes acts differently.

Now relax – there’s no need to brace yourself for a gut-wrenching story about Josh’s life. His days have been filled with laughter, family, and friendships, not to mention a reverence for professional wrestling and a passion for disco dancing.

If you met Josh, you would recognize immediately why the sages commanded us to protect those with disabilities and differences. Josh has always been remarkable – a ray of sunshine and a beacon of hope and positivity in a world where those attributes are often in short supply.

He personifies what is possible when stumbling blocks are removed.

Josh was born in 1967. Back then, those with Down syndrome were all-too-frequently institutionalized … and those institutions were all-too-commonly dehumanizing.

Institutionalization never crossed my parents’ minds. Their approach from day one was straightforward: Josh is one of the Edelson boys, and he’s going to grow up like his three older brothers. Stumbling blocks be damned.

When Josh arrived home, I was eight years old and thrilled to have another brother. No sense of gloom settled over the house. Mom and Dad made sure we welcomed our new teammate with open arms.

My parents are the heroes of Josh’s story. If they were here, they could spend hours describing their fears and the countless stumbling blocks they confronted, including insidious societal assumptions about Josh’s true potential.

My mother became a champion in New Jersey for the rights of all those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. No one was going to tell Jill Edelson that something wasn’t possible … at least not a second time.

My parents demolished hurdle after hurdle for Josh and others.

But rather than dwell on the battles, I am certain Mom and Dad would spend far more time recounting how much joy Josh brought into their lives. If the family photo album is any indication, Josh was without doubt their favorite son!

Mom and Dad set high expectations for Josh, as they did for all of us, in school and in all walks of life.

He was expected to make his bed, hold his fork and knife properly, eat his vegetables (even Lima beans), and always give a firm handshake and look someone in the eye. And he was forced to sit politely at the dinner table with our grandparents, often in uncomfortable grey flannel pants, until all four of us were formally excused.

My parents were remarkable. They far exceeded God’s admonition not to insult or erect stumbling blocks; they epitomized what it means to affirm life by lifting someone up and letting them shine.

Josh’s life has benefited from others clearing his path, not to mention his own hard work. It has also benefited from the kindness and empathy of others, as they recognize Josh’s differences make him special.

Early on, I wasn’t so sure about the kindness of strangers. As an older brother, I was on-edge about kids making fun of Josh for being different.

Josh attended the local junior high school when he was in his teens. He was in a special class but was mainstreamed for certain subjects. Teens can be mean, and we were worried Josh would be the object of their derision.

Josh decided to become the manager of the 9th grade boys’ basketball team. In that school, the basketball players were the self-anointed coolest of the cool. I was worried. Would they make fun of Josh’s awkwardness and exploit his gullibility?

My fears were unwarranted. The kids fell for Josh – his radiant smile and his genuine enthusiasm. He became part of the team.

And whenever someone did make fun of Josh, which sadly happened occasionally, a phalanx of kids closed ranks and let the perpetrator know that making fun of Josh or any of his classmates was, well, completely un-cool.

Josh attended high school on Cape Cod and then moved into a wonderful supported independent living community in Hyannis, which has been his home for the last 30 years.

About five years ago, I went to pick up Josh at the Star Market, where he worked bagging groceries and helping customers load their cars. I sat and watched as customer after customer gave Josh a hearty greeting and a warm hug and chatted his ear off as they made their way to the parking lot.

Several of them told me how much they loved Josh and looked forward to seeing him during their regular visits to the supermarket. Josh was part of the fabric of their lives, and their kindness warmed my heart.

As an aside, Josh’s own impish nature came through that day. He feigned fatigue toward the end of his shift and convinced his doting older brother to race around the parking lot collecting stray shopping carts, while he directed me from afar. I can still see the smile on his face!

Josh is now 54 years old. He is slowing down as Alzheimer’s takes its toll. He recently moved into a small group home and requires round-the-clock care.

Yet Josh remains a happy and magnetic guy, brightening the days of those around him. Still smiling, laughing, and hugging, and exuding sweetness. This has been his modus vivendi since childhood.

We all seek to gain perspective and wisdom along the road of life. Josh has helped me gain both, just as he has done for so many others.

Thank goodness stumbling blocks did not rob me of one of my greatest teachers.

As for the Holiness Code, I have a suggestion. Leviticus 19:14 as written instructs us what NOT to do. Instead, from now on, let’s turn it around and read it as what TO DO.

We can help those with physical and intellectual disabilities, and all those in need. We can remove obstacles and show kindness. We can walk in God’s ways. We can be holy.

Thank you. G’mar Chatimah Tovah.

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