Congregation Beth Israel, Houston Texas
“When a Sacred Community Serves All God’s Children”
Tazria-Metzora is one of the least favorite portions in the whole Torah, because it’s about bodily emissions, leprosy, and other taboo subjects. But, it’s a bum rap. If we read it as the rabbis did and we should, the portion urges us to find the sacred and Godly in what is admittedly unfamiliar and unseemly. In this portion in Leviticus, scaly skin afflictions, bodily emissions, and “tzara’at,” commonly translated to mean leprosy, were examined by the priest. His observations rendered a person clean or unclean. If he or she was unclean, then the person would call out, “Unclean, unclean!” and be exempt from the community for a prescribed amount of time. Only until the priest found that the person was clean could re-entry be allowed and with proper gifts and offerings. The goal wasn’t condemnation or exile; the goal was maintenance of a sacred community that aimed for God’s blessing through ritual and ethical deeds.
Today, it goes without saying that we understand vastly more about such ancient taboos. But, can it also be said that we’ve done as much as our ancient ancestors not to condemn or exile those who, temporarily or permanently, cannot meet the highest standards of human participation physically, emotionally, or mentally?
In Texas, we rank 49 out of 50 states in support for severely mentally retarded children and adults who are living in State Supported Living Centers (SSLC’s). Some children who are otherwise born in love and blessing, nevertheless, fail to thrive as their parents hoped they would, and can’t live at home because their parents don’t possess skills and resources to provide 24/7 care. Their children will never live independently of the state supported living centers where they currently reside. But, funding in Texas is threatened; SSLC’s are being reduced in number. Residents will be forced to move to other locations sometimes farther from parents and relatives who visit regularly. In other cases, there is no family to visit: their parents are unable or unwilling to visit, or they’re deceased. Reducing care means reducing compassion for children and adults who need it most.
About 25 years ago, a young couple I knew who already had a bright baby boy, welcomed a little girl into their lives. But, after some time they recognized that her verbal and motor skills weren’t developing, and her obvious temperamental behavior was growing more severe. Doctors couldn’t diagnose it properly and spiritual support was failing, too. The rabbi of their synagogue, not in Texas, empathized but offered no real support. Failing them, the mother, who had chosen Judaism lovingly, nevertheless, sought a church to find what they couldn’t find in the synagogue. The church was better equipped to respond. The mother decided to reclaim her Christian faith, and her husband, not wanting to be left behind, joined her. The child now resides in a state sponsored residential home and always will. Her parents visit regularly and provide unconditional love. The outcome was good for the family and their daughter, but it left a hole in the Jewish community that desperately needed to be filled with better support, resources, and hope. Jay Ruderman, of the Ruderman Family Foundation, teaches, “If you lose the child, you lose the family.”
Similarly, but with a more favorable outcome, a daughter of members of my congregation in Houston, sought the support of their senior rabbi at the time, and found what they needed from the synagogue. Rabbi Karff, Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel, responded generously to their needs with resources, support, and hope. Their daughter lives in a residential home in Texas, and receives regular visits from her family and unconditional love, too. When their daughter was of Bat Mitzvah age, when a 13 year-old Jewish child is called to read and teach from Torah, she was obviously unable to do it. But, standing near the Holy Ark, Rabbi Karff placed the Torah into their daughter’s arms and guided her in reciting a few sacred words. The rabbi’s blessing confirmed her place in God’s covenant with all God’s children. The bond between family and synagogue will forever be regarded as a testament to faith and trust. Today, Congregation Beth Israel’s commitment to children and especially those who specific challenges is one of its many gifts to Jewish families.
If birth is a blessing from God, then we are in no position to judge which births are greater blessings than others. As moral advocates, we must champion their needs and urge our representatives in Austin to do the same. For the sake of children and adults in State Supported Living Centers (SSLC’s), we must urge our legislators to oppose: consolidating and/or closure of any SSLC’s; displacing our most vulnerable and innocent loved ones from their homes and communities; nor forcing our medically fragile/behaviorally challenged and easily disoriented citizens into a totally inadequate system of group homes.
We must support and urge our legislators to extend highly specialized services at the SSLC’s to those living in the community with similar complex needs. We feel very confident that the services, which are often available only at SSLC campuses to intellectually/developmentally disabled citizens, are serving their intended purposes.
In Leviticus, the Israelite community didn’t continue its wilderness journey until every member of the community was able to re-enter. Imagine that the highest and holiest deed was to enable a person to mend and be repaired so that the community could remain intact in God’s presence. We’re aware that not every citizen can perform their duties as we do; but, every citizen is a human being whose life depends on us. God’s blessing wasn’t meant for the most fit, alone; it was also meant for the most fit to extend it to those who knew they could count on us to do the right thing with it. Call or write your representatives in Austin, today. Tell them that you advocate for those who can’t advocate for themselves. Our community can’t move on until everybody is counted.
Everybody should know that they have an advocate in the State of Texas, a state that says it values every life.
Do give thanks to God for what we know, what we can do, and, despite our personal struggles, that we can believe tomorrow will be better; and, then take the time you need to consider those who can’t know or do, or even imagine a better tomorrow for themselves. It’s not ours to fix all the ills of the world around us; but, there’s so much we can do, together, if we advocate for the role that God’s blessings in us were created to serve in others.