This past autumn, when I was almost entirely new to living in London, I got to know the Northern Line very well. I spent a good part of every day shuttling back and forth from Finchley Central to Golder’s Green to Belsize Park to Charing Cross. One day, as I was descending the lift at the Belsize tube station into the belly of the beast, I heard a clear voice next to me in the lift say, “Would you mind helping me onto the train?” I turned and saw a thin, elderly man standing there with a cane and realized I often saw him out and about in Belsize, tapping along the street. He clearly could not see me, but he knew someone else was in the lift. “Sure,” I said. “Wonderful!” he said. ”If you could take my arm.” We exited the lift together, my arm at his elbow and waited on the platform together. Waiting for the train, we chatted. It was by far the least creepy experience of standing arm in arm with a perfect stranger that it could possibly be. I told him about studying in rabbinical school and where I was from in the States, and he told me that he was a classical clarinet teacher and that every day, he took a train and then a bus on his commute to Greenwich where he taught. I didn’t say it – but I was amazed – and still am – by his ability to navigate London transport with such ease. As the train pulled into the station, and I led him onto the carriage, he said to me, “The hardest part is knowing where the door to the train will open.”
I got off two stops later and said goodbye. Later that day, coincidentally, I saw him again when we were getting back off the Underground at Belsize Park. “Hello,” I said. “Well hello,” he said, half-turning toward me. “The girl from this morning!”
I suppose you don’t get many American women speaking to you on a daily basis in the London Underground, but his ability to recognize me just from my greeting was remarkable, I thought. And what’s more – the idea that the hardest part about traversing the Underground is guessing where the doors to the train will open up… This is something I still think about waiting on the platform all the time. If nothing else, what a different way to experience the world. And perhaps most striking of all to me – the faith he must have in other people in order to rely on at least a couple passengers every day to help him on the train, not to mention the faith that I’m not sure that I possess, to trust that people won’t take advantage of his obvious blindness to do him harm.
Maybe that’s the cynic in me, but when sighted people are taken advantage of every day, couldn’t it be even scarier to be blind? I’m reminded of something a lawyer friend always tells me – that the very old and the very young and the disabled are disproportionately represented as victims of abuse and crime.
That man has been on my mind for over six months now for two reasons. One is very simply because, like a lot of us, I grew up on a verse from this week’s parsha, Kedoshim – “You shall not insult the deaf , or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God: I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:14) The second is a more personal reason, which I will get to.
First, the verse – it’s one of the those verses that’s almost ingrained in our memory – “a stumbling block before the blind” – and it comes to amongst us a string of ethical commandments, along with the laws of peah, dealing falsely, and stealing. I do not think it is meant only to be taken literally, but I am drawn to its literal meaning more and more these days.
I have told anyone who knows me well that I grew up with not two but three parents. My mother, my father, and my mother’s younger, never-married brother, my uncle. My mother gripes that my uncle refused to change my sister’s and my diapers, but he was always around from day one, babysitting and telling us bedtime stories. I remember very vividly my uncle’s childhood stories about twin sisters who were literally attached at the hip and did everything together, until one sister decided to cut herself off and run away (a morality tale really about the strengths and pitfalls to my sister’s and my own sisterly closeness) and the wealthy New England family of well-meaning buffoons, teenagers Biff and Muffy (and Muffy’s boyfriend Chip) and their parents, MaMa and Tata (a thinly veiled social commentary on American WASP society from a skeptical Jewish perspective, though I certainly didn’t’ know it at the time).
My uncle is a slight man, young-looking for someone in his early 50s, and with two older sisters with their own good senses of humor, he grew up the clever clown of his family – as legend has it, always appearing at parties his parents threw to do a routine or skit or just to tell jokes to the guests and family friends. He is a lawyer – and a friend once told us the best appellate lawyer in the state – though he would never tell you that – and a voracious reader – of journals, novels and Judaica.
About ten years ago, my uncle started to go blind. Over this past decade, his world has narrowed to literally a small pinprick – through which he can still read and see some color. He can no longer see faces clearly, and his eyesight will continue to degenerate without plateauing. He cannot drive or really see at all at this point, in any sense a sighted person would appreciate.
Some scholarship says the blind in the ancient Middle East were seen as people being punished for sin and that this is why they were outcast – and thus why the Torah enjoins us not to put stumbling blocks before them – but I don’t think we really need any such elaborate reasons to explain why the blind and others who are seen as disabled or impaired are often marginalized in society. The world is full of the fully-abled, and so often we do not have patience for those who are not – whether they are old or sick or otherwise infirm.
The verse in our parsha reminds me of another litany I grew up with – in the American Reform machzor that Chaim Stern, co-author of British Liberal siddurim, wrote. In an English reading that is almost as sacred to me as the Hebrew “Al Chaits,” among many other sins, I recited on Yom Kippur every year—“For shunting aside those whose youth or age disturbs us… O God of mercy, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement!”
I think of that line a lot – “whose age disturbs us.” How often have I not had the patience to calm myself and sit and listen to my grandmother tell a story, simply because age has made her slower? How often have any of us put off visiting a sick relative because it pains us, not unreasonably, to see them so ill?
My uncle’s doctor just told him this spring that he should start learning to walk with a cane. My greatest wish is that he will live in a world where he can trust that we’ll help him get on the train when the doors open.
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.