D’var Torah: Parashat Emor

I’m not sure if “anecdote” is the right word, but I have two of them:


The first:

I read an article during the week on JewishBoston.com which spoke of a woman named Cynthia Piltch, a health educator who is also trained in alternative medicine.


“Piltch’s mental health advocacy begins with her own story. Over two decades ago, Piltch had the first of two depressive episodes that left her hospitalized. She tried an array of medications that did nothing to lift her depression. Piltch recently told JewishBoston that ‘the only treatment that saved my life was electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), and I had to fight to receive it. Everybody has the right to direct his or her own health. Why did I have to go through 12 medications before I convinced the doctors all those years ago that I needed ECT?’


Eight years ago, Piltch went through a second depressive episode. At the time, she made a decision that would change her life. ‘I realized I had a choice,’ she said. ‘I could continue to feel ashamed and keep [my depression] a secret to maintain my career, or I could come out of the closet. I not only came out of the closet, I made the decision that although depression was a part of me, it didn’t define me.’”



Piltch has gone on to trailblaze the way for including mental health as a priority for synagogues to address, and she is one of the key organizers of an annual event called “Celebrating Inclusion: Opening Doors to Jewish Community” which will take place in Boston later this month. Thanks to Piltch, the focus of this year’s Inclusion event will be mental health.


Molly Silver, a leader in Synagogue Inclusion, added:


“’There has been so much wonderful progress in many areas of inclusion, including synagogue ramps, bima accessibility, large-print siddurim and allergy awareness during synagogue gatherings. But one area that has lagged behind is mental health. The stigma associated with mental health issues can deter people from seeking help, reaching out to their rabbis.’”

– and, I might add, even from participating in community.


The second anecdote, which is a more personal one for me. I hope it won’t be too self indulgent, and that my decision to share it with you will be apparent:


When our first child was about one-year-old, I started being concerned that he was not reaching a number of developmental milestones. Our pediatrician sent us along to a neurologist who performed test after test, shaking toy after toy in front of his face. After half an hour of this, the first words from the doctor to us were: “The most remarkable features of autism are…”, and at first I thought to myself: “What an absurd thing: to speak to us about autism when our child isn’t –“, and then the penny dropped and I almost vomited.


Initially he was diagnosed with PDDNOS (Pervasive Developmental Delay Not Otherwise Specified) – yes, there really is a medical condition whose name ends with “Not Otherwise Specified” – because his delays were in every possible area, and by age three, a diagnosis of autism was confirmed.


Four years later, we were so relieved when all was going well with our second child. Rachel even commented once how he moved so much more in-utero than our first, and surely that was a sign of something.


But one morning shortly after his second birthday, it was as if with the press of a button, everything changed. In an instant, he began making a moaning sound known as vocalizing, and then he began to bite on his hand as the self-inflicted pain provided the sensory input he sought. Following this he began to run in circles around the house in laps, and following this, he lost most of his speech.


When I was a child growing up, one of the lessons my father taught me was that shul was a place that demanded decorum. I remember him and my grandfather shaking their heads in disapproval at other children who would run back and forth making a noise without any intervention from their parents.


And so ironically, when Rabbi Bradley Artson, the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies who also is the parent of an autistic child, visited Rochester a few years ago, our little one had a difficult time controlling himself during a sermon that Rabbi Artson delivered at a local synagogue.


I apologized to Rabbi Artson afterwards for the disturbance that my son had created, and Rabbi Artson turned to me and said:


“It’s OK. It’s really OK. He’s happy. He’s in the synagogue, surrounded by other Jews, learning how to be a Jew himself, and he’s happy. A shul that welcomes your son is a synagogue where everyone can find a place and where people will want to join and be engaged and involved. Let him be, and others will see that it’s OK, that this is not just a place for typical people. The Jewish community needs to be a place where people are accepted, even if the rest of the world out there is not like that.”


In one of the sessions he taught that weekend, Rabbi Artson tried to make us more at ease with our own imperfections, when he said to the audience:


“There are entire industries dedicated to making you think you’re broken. But you are a child of God, created בצלם אלוקים / Betzelem Elokim / in God’s image / – and so you are magnificent. You were made exactly as you are because no one like you has ever existed before, faults and all. You are unique. It doesn’t mean you don’t have stuff to work on, but the only way you work on these things is to know you’re beautiful inside and out. This knowledge is critical to giving you the strength to work at being better. Isn’t this a world you’d prefer to live in, rather than in the world of those industries dedicated to making you think you’re broken?”


It is taught in this morning’s parashah:


עַוֶּרֶת אוֹ שָׁבוּר אוֹ־חָרוּץ אוֹ־יַבֶּלֶת … לֹא־תַקְרִיבוּ אֵלֶּה לַה׳

[ויקרא כב,כב]


Anything blind, or injured, or maimed or with a wart… you shall not offer to the LORD;

[Lev. 22:22]



With eternal gratitude to my teacher Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld who taught me this midrash in Vayikra Rabbah:


אָמַר רַבִּי אַבָּא בַּר יוּדָן כָּל מַה שֶׁפָּסַל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא בִּבְהֵמָה הִכְשִׁיר בְּאָדָם…

]ויקרא רבה, פרשה ז,ב[


Rabbi Aba bar Yudan taught:  All that God prohibited in an animal sacrifice, God accepts in a human being.  What is prohibited in an offering? “Anything blind or broken or maimed or with a wart, anything with a defect may not be brought as an offering to Lord.” All these things, which render a sacrifice unfit, God fully accepts; the Holy One sees as fitting in a human being. 

[Vayikrah Rabbah 7:2]



As it is written in Psalm 51:


לֵב־נִשְׁבָּר וְנִדְכֶּה ה׳ לֹא תִבְזֶה׃

[תהילים נא,יט]


A crushed and broken heart, God will not despise.

[Psalm 51:19]


The midrash goes on to explain that as human beings, we are ashamed and embarrassed to use a vessel that is broken, but not so with God.  All of God’s vessels are broken. All of us. 


Human beings, the midrash reminds us, are not sacrifices.  God does not look for us to be unblemished or perfect.  We are all broken vessels, and we are all infinitely precious in God’s eyes.  And God sees that which we human beings are not always able to see in each other.  God is the One who knows the wholeness in those that appear shattered. And the brokenness in those that seem together. 


Rebbe Nachman of Breslav taught:


אין דבר יותר שלם מלב שבור


There is nothing more whole than a broken heart


And Leonard Cohen, who may very well have known about Reb Nachman’s teaching, but whether he did or did not nonetheless interpreted it perfectly:


There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.

Anthem, by Leonard Cohen



Friends, to the extent that Jewish life in general or even I in the short time we’ve known each other, have every forced people to live in the margins, in places where the rest of us often find it difficult to look, I offer a sincere apology and invite, I solicit, your involvement to help me, to help all of us, make the necessary changes in our community so that this is a place where all are welcome, where all are kosher, and where all of us are infinitely precious in the eyes of God.


Shabbat Shalom.