Shoftim: When Ideas Become Idols
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Shoftim: When Ideas Become Idols

Rabbi Michael Levy: As a founding member of Yad Hachazakah, the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center, Rabbi Levy strives to make the Jewish experience and Jewish texts accessible to Jews with disabilities. In lectures at Jewish camps, synagogues and educational institutions, he cites Nachshon, who according to tradition, boldly took the plunge into the Red Sea even before it miraculously parted. Rabbi Levy elaborates, “We who have disabilities should be Nachshons, boldly taking the plunge into the Jewish experience, supported by laws and lore that mandate our participation.” Rabbi Levy is currently director of Travel Training at MTA New York City Transit. He is an active member of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, N.Y. He invites anyone who has disability-related questions to email him.

This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, contains the prohibition “Do not erect or yourselves a sacred pillar (or monument,) which the Lord your God detests (Deuteronomy 16: 22). Sacred pillars were part of the idol worship practiced by nations with whom the Israelites came into contact.

Monuments Today

The Hebrew word for pillar or monument, matzevah, connotes “unmoving, standing still.” I have more than once clung to a “matzevah in the form of a fixed unchanging idea and, in this way, treated it like an idol.

Examples include “In an argument, one position is always correct and the other position is always wrong.” “It is never good to depend on anybody or ask for help.” “A person who lashes out at me once will never ever earn my trust in the future.” Ultimately, I dismissed these ideas as falsehoods.

A Fixed Idea Can Spoil Your Future

In the disability community, you sometimes hear fixed ideas like “I will never be happy until I throw away these crutches.” “My son should always be in an integrated environment.” “My daughter must always remain in a segregated environment for her own good.” “Scientists and health professionals always know what’s best for the disabled.”

When your thinking relies on too many fixed ideas, you may find it hard to consider options that contradict those ideas, such as “I’ll make the best of my life, with or without crutches,” or “The kind of environment that is best for my child may very well change from one year to the next.”

A More Flexible Attitude

Since the days of the patriarch Abraham, we Jews have been known to knock idols and ideas off their pedestals. It takes a lot of courage to say “I should have realized earlier that it’s easier for me to listen to books than to access them through the printed word” or “It took me too long to realize that I can use a wheelchair and still be happy,” or “There are times when my
child’s disability makes it more beneficial for her to be in a segregated setting.

The best scientists realize that the most “sacred” of theories might one day be disproven. Through the 1970’s, polio survivors were encouraged to exercise as much as possible. Many health professionals now understand that all-out exertion can overwork the muscles that remain usable, and can aggravate the pain and fatigue of post-polio syndrome.

The Canaanite idols are long gone. Our struggle now is with assumptions and ideas which can too easily be worshipped without question.

A native of Bradley Beach, New Jersey, Rabbi Michael Levy attributes his achievements to God’s beneficence and to his courageous parents. His parents supported him as he explored his small home town, visited Israel and later studied at Hebrew University, journeyed towards more observant Judaism, received rabbinic ordination, obtained a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University and lectured on Torah- and disability-related topics.

As a founding member of Yad Hachazakah — the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center (www.yadempowers.org), Rabbi Levy strives to make the Jewish experience and Jewish texts accessible to Jews with disabilities. In lectures at Jewish camps, synagogues and educational institutions, he cites Nachshon, who according to tradition boldly took the plunge into the Red Sea even before it miraculously parted. Rabbi Levy elaborates, “We who have disabilities should be Nachshons –boldly taking the plunge into the Jewish experience, supported by laws and lore that mandate our participation.” Rabbi Levy is currently director of Travel Training at MTA New York City Transit. He is an active member of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, NY. He invites anyone who has disability-related questions to e-mail him at info@yadempowers.org

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