Sometimes, the words we want to write are not the ones we need to write. Sometimes, we might want to write them but feel we can’t or we shouldn’t. I suppose this is both
I am deeply inspired by Rabbi Sheila Shulman’s (z”l) ‘biography-based theology’; Rabbi Professor Jonathan Magonet explains in the introduction that ‘Something of [her] pain is reflected in these sermons, but transformed into ways that enable others to accept their own struggles and share the hope of someone who has been there, survived and gone beyond’. I am certain that many people – congregants and rabbis alike – share some of my experiences. But our voices are often hidden – and I can choose to use mine.
‘When you make a vow to the Eternal One your God, do not put off fulfilling it, for the Eternal One your God will require it of you, and you will have incurred guilt; whereas you incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing. You must fulfil what has crossed your lips and perform what you have voluntarily vowed to the Eternal One your God, having made the promise with your own mouth.’ (Deuteronomy 23:22-24)
We all make promises we don’t keep — from promising to tidy our rooms, to watching one more episode or eating one more biscuit. We’ve all promised acquaintances “we must catch up; I’ll message you” when, generally without any malice, we have no intention of ever getting that drink. Even with promises we do keep, I’m sure many of you procrastinate beforehand.
And other times, we’re simply promising things we have no control over: I promise I will always love you; I promise it will get better.
I was told, before my acceptance into the college five years ago, that I was too unreliable to be a rabbi. My teenage years and early twenties were a constant struggle of mental illness; my mid-to-late twenties have been awash with physical illness. While things are better now, I have about half the physical capacity of a typical person. I am reliant on mobility aids and unpaid care, and despite cutting back on most aspects of my life, I cannot always fulfil my promises. My body cannot cope.
So, to read these words from this week’s Torah portion is hard. It’s not surprising, and nor do I disagree with them. And it’s true that I incur guilt from not being able to fulfil a vow — a raw, consuming kind. There are over 16 million disabled people in the UK, and there will be more who feel unable or unwilling to identify as such, but have hidden chronic illnesses affecting their every choice and commitment.
Half a chapter later, we read: You shall not abuse a needy and destitute labourer, whether a fellow Israelite or a stranger in one of the communities of your land, (Deuteronomy 24:14), in a short series of verses about business ethics. The words ‘ani v’evyon’, translated by JPS as ‘needy and destitute’, both also mean ‘oppressed’. It’s refreshing that biblical Hebrew sees the connection between being poor and needy with being oppressed. The verb asak also means to oppress; essentially, ‘You shall not further oppress your already oppressed workers’. It’s less poetic, and not the translation I’d use if giving a business ethics shiur (I rather fancy ‘You shall not take advantage of your workers’ oppression’ for that), but it gets the point across.
There are people who are oppressed by society’s lack of accessibility (this is known as the ‘social model’ relating to disability). How many people can say the same for their workplace – that it is inaccessible, unforgiving, or inflexible to their needs – whether those needs relate to gender, family situation, education, chronic illness, or any number of others?
It is important to note, even in a perfectly accessible world there are still those who will be disabled, and that’s okay.
As we approach the High Holy Days, with vows, self-reflection and penitence in our minds, it is difficult not to self-flagellate and internalise structural failings as your own. Rabbi Avigayil Halpern writes about the complexities of this, especially for minorities, launching her Feminist Teshuva Circle:
‘Our community’s narratives of “teshuva” often harm vulnerable people. We are asked to be self-critical when self-criticism itself is something that is a constant, harmful companion; we are asked to treat traits that we need to cultivate (anger, for example) as inherently bad; and we are asked to focus on all of us as perpetrators of harm when some of us are undergoing profound experiences of victimization; and more.’
Of course, we all harm – as well as being harmed. We certainly, myself included, owe it to ourselves and those around us to engage with a teshuvah process; acknowledging and changing our damaging behaviours. But what about when people are confessing failings that they have no control over, or that result from structural oppressions, and are themselves harmed by these admissions? We can’t wash our hands of the vows that we make, we should be held accountable. However, we must also be aware of when our expectations force unfulfillable vows on others. Perhaps then we will all harm and be harmed less.
If you relate to anything I have written I am happy to speak with you. You might also be interested in two community resources: Finchley Progressive Synagogue’s Long Covid and Chronic Illness Support Group (accessible on Zoom and in person) and Abraham and Sarah’s Tent group on Facebook.
Daisy Bogod LBC Rabbinic student
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.