I take it for granted, as do you, probably, if you are reading this. The ability to read, I mean; and to do whatever else we adults normally enjoy without effort: meet friends, eat out, go to work, vacation.
But many people cannot do that. They are the profoundly impaired: from birth, perhaps; from diseases with names they cannot pronounce; or from accidents — a patch of black ice sent them spinning into a
Some recover. They didn’t.
They were once young prospects on their way up, and now they are going nowhere: no job (no way to hold one); atrophied friendships (old friends move on). They may no longer walk well, talk well, read well, do anything well — not by the standards they took for granted before.
They once threw themselves into therapy: physical, occupational, and emotional. But progress stalled, and now they are unemployed, living alone, or with parents, or institutionalized — and lonely. They thought this sort of thing happened only to other people. Now they are the other people.
American and Jewish cultures together collude in hyping success. “What do you do?” we ask, when meeting someone new. Big-time “doers” get splashy obituaries in the Times. What must you think of yourself when you don’t really “do” anything — except take a few classes, watch TV, and awaken daily, wondering, “What good am I?”
Judaism has an answer, not for the random cruelty of it all (that’s inexplicable), but for what constitutes human worth, a surety that God shows Moses upon Mt. Sinai. “You cannot see my face,” God says, “but I will make my goodness pass before you; stand here in the cleft of the rock and look.” So Moses looks. And this is what he sees.
“A God compassionate and loving, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and truth, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, and forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin.” To be sure, another sentence hedges all that, adding a side of God that punishes. But the rabbis winked it away as not really counting: when they added these divine attributes to our prayers they omitted that sentence entirely. You want to know who God is? God is compassionate, loving, truthful, kind, and forgiving: that’s it!
Not one word about accomplishments! God could have shown Moses a rerun of the Exodus, miracles beyond belief, even the creation of the world. But none of that came to mind. What mattered to God, and what matters to Judaism, is compassion, love, truth, kindness, and forgiveness.
Nothing can ever make up for being stripped of the ability to work, to read, to think, to speak, to cook, “to DO.” But the message from Sinai is that what matters is not what we do; it is who we are: kind, compassionate, loving, and forgiving.
If that be the case, then even the profoundly impaired need not wonder what good they are. They suffer enough through their disabilities; they should not have to suffer further by buying into our fetish for accomplishments. The thing that matters most is showing up each day and being like God.
One of God’s attributes is “truth,” because the others (kindness, love, compassion, and forgiveness), sometimes hard to come by, emerge naturally when we acknowledge the truth about how hard it is to be human. Victims of massive impairment know that truth firsthand. What we call the soul, says Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, is actually the voice of God within us, speaking truths from the deepest wells of honesty.
When people ask them what they “do,” victims of disability should say, with a smile, “I speak from a soul inured in honesties about the human condition, the truths from which others are spared. I am attuned to a world where God no longer shows up personally very much. So I am that presence: the voice of truth and love, a witness for compassion and kindness, a model for understanding and forgiveness.”
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is cofounder of Synagogue 3000 and a professor of liturgy, worship, and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.