Prayer

"Disability" Redux

[I wrote this piece about disabilities about seven years ago, when I was learning how to confront my hearing loss. Since then my hearing as deteriorated, and it impacts every class I teach and every interaction I have. As you may imagine, it’s terribly frustrating. I felt like returning to this essay, to see how I still feel about the sentiments I wrote in 2012. And I’ll have more to say about this subject in the weeks ahead, so it seems like a timely revisit.

Instead of just reposting the piece, I’ve added some contemporary glosses by a noted scholar. (Not the same ‘noted scholar’ who commented on Woody Allen’s legendary Hasidic tales, but perhaps descended from him.)]

 

Disability

The angel wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket…
The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping on his hip…
Jacob arrived  
שָׁלֵם [whole] at the city of Shechem.
(Genesis 32:26, 32; 33:18)

All of us are damaged in some way; it’s a fundamental part of being human. Also human is the way in which we confront our brokenness; the gracefulness with which accept our imperfections.

[GLOSS: When I originally wrote this, some of my readers objected to the word ‘brokenness’ as being harsh and implying a value-judgment. There’s a stream of thought among disabled communities that one should “embrace” her or his disability. But “brokenness” is precisely what I mean. When I consider what has become of my hearing, “broken” and in need of “fixing” is exactly how I feel about it.]

My personal disability is rather awkward because it plays itself out so publicly in my life – in the classroom, in meetings (in Buber’s sense of the word), in our sanctuary, and even across a hospital bed. I started losing my hearing a few years ago, at exactly the same age when my father began to lose his. It began to impact my effectiveness in my work. I would get frustrated, angry at myself. I even had a moment of “bottoming out”, to use the language of addiction and recovery, when I sat in the front row for a lecture of which I heard practically nothing. It rocked me deeply.

[GLOSS: What I thought was “bottoming out” was just the beginning. It’s become commonplace for me to attend a crowded party and not be able to hear a thing, or stubbornly go to concerts and strain to recognize songs that I know really well.]

For a short while I felt sorry for myself. Then I started visiting audiologists and figuring out how I was going to move forward. Hearing aids help, although to my chagrin and frustration they have remained “aids” and have never given me 100% of the hearing I’ve desired. This was particularly frustrating, because of all our cherished senses, hearing is especially precious to me. You who know me know that for me listening to music is one of life’s deepest pleasures. The diminishment of that pleasure is a serious heartbreak. 

[GLOSS: That observation was important. I still can’t really explain why contact lenses give me 20/20 vision, but hearing aids don’t deliver “20/20 hearing”, so to speak. Family and friends of hearing-impaired people need to understand that.

All of us have fears that awaken us in the middle of the night, when the day’s distractions have dissolved away. Lately mine is the prospect of what my hearing loss will be like when I’m 50, or 60, or beyond. Will I move from “hearing-impaired” to full-fledged deafness? Will I be able to function at my job? Those are real fears I carry in my soul, with some degree of anguish.

But these days those fears don’t slow me down. Quite to the contrary. I’ve become more and more comfortable with saying to students in my classroom, “This is what I’m working to overcome. This is my disability. What’s yours?”

[GLOSS: Some days I feel the early optimism of this piece fading. But I have never been shy about announcing that I’m hearing impaired. It’s become quite standard for me to open a class or launch a speech with a disclaimer about my disability. Not in a self-pitying way… just to clue people in.]

In fact, I find an enormous amount of strength coming forth from our tradition. Personal prayer has become far more intense since I’ve come to grips with my disability. The morning prayers, for instance, contain a remarkable passage that reflects on the body’s delicateness: “You have made the human body filled with tiny holes and orifices… If one of them were opened when it should be closed, or closed when it should be opened, we wouldn’t be able to stand before You for even a moment.” When I reflect that my hearing loss stems from the ossification of the miniscule bones in the inner ear, I share the wonder of the siddur’s poet. It’s a daily miracle how much works so well!

[GLOSS: Still true. And yet… I look at the birchot ha-shachar, the daily blessings of awe that are found early on in the Jewish siddur. We bless G-d for being pokeach ivrim, “the One who gives sight to people who are blind,” which of course is meant as a spiritual metaphor. Why doesn’t it say mashmiya chershim, “the One who causes deaf people to hear”? Especially since “to hear” – as in the Shema Yisrael – is such a crucial metaphor in the Jewish prayerbook? I’ll write more about this soon, but I’m curious if you have an insight about this.]

In the Torah, many of our ancestors carried some sort of brokenness. Isaac was blind; so too, perhaps, was Leah. Jacob’s leg was wrenched in his wrestling with the angel; perhaps he limped for the rest of his life. Most famously, Moses stood before G-d at the burning bush and said, in essence, “Why would you choose me to speak before Pharaoh?  After all, my lips…” The Torah is enigmatic about Moses’s shortcoming: Did he stutter?  Did he have a disabled palate? Or was he merely terrified of public speaking? It matters—but not as much as G-d’s response to him, which is, in essence, “I don’t make mistakes. I’ve called you to do a job, to speak truth to the power that is Pharaoh. And if you trust Me, then when the time comes we’ll find the words, together.”

[GLOSS: A partial list of disabled people from Jewish tradition (note the surprising absence of deaf characters):
Isaac – blind
Leah – “weak eyes”
Jacob – walked with a limp
Moses – speech impeded
Samson – blind
Ahiya the prophet – blind
Rabbi Yosef (Nedarim 41a) – blind
Rabbi Sheshet (Berachot 58a) – blind
Levi (Ta’anit 21a) – could not walk
The Maggid of Mezeritch – walked with a limp
R. Simcha Bunem of Peshischa – blind
… I know there’s so many more. How many can you add to this list?]

I have no delusions (trust me) of being a Jacob or Moses or Isaac or Leah. But I study their life-stories and try to learn their lessons. Isaac found the words to bless his children. Leah went on to find love and, if you believe the midrash, she also found her sister. Jacob, even with his limp, is still called shalem, “whole” – a poignant reminder that these finite bodies are mere containers for the infinity in our souls. And Moses, G-d’s servant and partner, spoke through damaged lips the words, “Let my people go.” He even found the strength and confidence to lead a people through the wilderness.

I imagine that each of them felt sorry for themselves when they first confronted their disabilities. Maybe their communities supported them in their struggles (maybe they didn’t). But eventually, each of them found a way back to Life; to saying: This is Who I Am. No longer will it hold me back, but I’ll offer myself, anew, in all my brokenness, to do what I was designed to do all along. In faith and tradition and the love of others, I will find my strength.

This is my brokenness. What’s yours?

[GLOSS: Corny ending, perhaps. But something cool has happened over the years: when I talk about my disability, I’ve found that students of all ages have opened up. Some have come to me and said, “I’ve been faking it for years; I’m going to make an appointment with an audiologist.” Even more gratifying are those whose hearing is fine, but who make the connections to their learning disability, or whatever. Here’s to each of us sharing our own vulnerabilities, so that “maybe more can come out of their hiding places” (to borrow a line from a Danny Siegel poem).