'Lifnei Iver' - A Life with Visual Impairment

Sermon Parashat Kedoshim 
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz 

'Lifnei Iver' - A Life with Visual Impairment

“V’lifnei iver lo titen michshal…” – “Do not place a stumbling block before the blind” (Lev. 19:14). This is, of course, one of the famous ethical commands that lies embedded in the middle of the ritual heart of Vayikra (Leviticus). Wedged in between chapters 18 and 20 that deal with ritual, sexual and cultic prohibitions (the so-called ‘arayot’, ‘nakedness’), chapter 19 of parashat Kedoshim brims with compelling ethical instruction. We are taught to love the stranger, not curse the deaf, pay a worker’s wages on time, not favour the rich or the poor, use equal weights and measures, to not hate our fellow in our heart. 

It would be easy then to explore the ethical commandments of Kedoshim in this sermon. It would be easy to tie it in with a particularly relevant or timely theme: after all, there are plenty of moral quandaries in today’s world that need addressing. But I’m not going to choose easy today. I’m going to do something that I find personally difficult, so bear with me. I’m going to talk about a deeply personal aspect of myself in context of ‘lifnei iver’, the prohibition to place a ‘stumbling block before the blind.’ 

Our tradition usually understands this prohibition ethically rather than literally: we are not to create conditions that set others up to fail through their ignorance. Just as a blind person cannot see where they are going, so too we should not set-up those who’s judgment is impaired. It’s a wonderful and subtle ethical principle that has all sorts of applications: whether defrauding a customer or placing a friend in a compromised social situation. But, I’m not going to focus on this aspect of but look at the verse literally—that is, visual impairment. 

Some of you may know that I have a mild visual impairment (I wear contact lenses). I say ‘mild’ because it pales in comparison to the very severe visual impairments some people struggle with. But I am severely myopic and this has had and continues to have consequences in both my personal and professional life. 

I was born two months premature from which my impairment stems; it’s congenital and irreversible. Although it has not grown worse throughout my life, it does present me with challenges and risks, including an increased risk of blindness later in life. Yet, my disability, due to its discreet nature, remains hidden most of the time. Most people don’t realise that I’m visually impaired—that I don’t drive a car, that I’m slightly face-blind, that I have poor hand-eye coordination (I stumble into things), am poor at gauging distances, depth perception and am lacking in spatial awareness. Or as I often quip: ‘I could get lost in my own backyard’. 

What this means in practice is that I have trouble getting my driver’s license, I find recognising faces very difficult (a challenge for a pulpit rabbi!), I frequently get lost in surroundings that should be familiar to me, I walk into things and knock things over, find it hard to look people in the eye, have trouble reading signs and find the ‘nikud’, the vowelisation of Hebrew, near-impossible to read, so when I find myself stumbling when leading services or reading Torah, it’s because the letters dance in front of my eyes. 

This is a continued, systemic problem, not easily fixed by wearing contact lenses or undergoing (expensive) surgery. It’s embarrassing enough having to reveal my physical vulnerabilities… but the emotional vulnerabilities plunge deeper. 

Because I wore extremely thick, unflattering glasses and was socially awkward due to my impairment (and because I was a nerdy, bookish kid!), I was bullied for most of my school days. I wore hideous glasses until I was 12, which dented my self-esteem. I felt ugly and incompetent, as many bullied kids do. After I left school, I had to (re)build my self-esteem in my early twenties. 

So there you have it: a rabbi who is admitting from the bimah that she’s visually impaired and suffers a number of practical and emotional consequences because of it. Now, your response could potentially be very British: ‘why share this? Isn’t this too personal, too intimate?’ As much as the professional role is important in the rabbinate, so is honouring my authentic self. To not do so would be ‘lifnei iver’—placing a stumbling block in front of my own vision of who I aspire to be as a human being and as a rabbi. 

It was Rabbi Dr Charles Middleburgh, Director of Studies at Leo Baeck College who encouraged me to ‘come out of the closet’ in the rabbinic context as a person with a disability. Rabbi Middleburgh gave me that courage, arguing how it would make me a more authentic, real and compassionate rabbi if I integrate that part of my identity into my calling. And if, through doing so, I can be an advocate for people with varying disabilities, then I am truly heeding the call of Kedoshim. Stripping down to your vulnerabilities—whatever these may be—can be a painful and confrontational process, as it often was during my youth. It takes courage and perhaps a certain measure of madness to do so. But it can also be an incredibly empowering and nurturing process. The difference lies in the support and inclusivity of the community in which that individual is embedded. 

In short: does it feel safe to reveal our vulnerability? To cut away the thickening of our own hearts? To admit to our fears and imperfections? If Kedoshim and the experiences of my own life teach us anything, it’s that we as a ‘kehillah kedoshah’ can make that vital difference. It is up to us, as Psalm 146 exhorts us, to ‘open the eyes of the blind, raise the bent, free the bound’. We can do that in large and small ways—through exercising kindness, consideration and patience. 

All of us struggle with our stumbling-blocks, our challenges, whether we are visually or hearing impaired, struggle with learning disabilities, chronic illness or mental health issues. A famous quote ascribed to the Hellenistic-Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria comes to mind: “Be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle.” 

Kedoshim shows us that the literal and the metaphorical, the ritual and the moral are interwoven. In our vulnerability, let us remember that the Divine dwells among us. Today, I felt ‘safe’ enough to share my story—let us endeavour to create a community of inclusivity where all of us dare to strip down to our flawed, beautiful, authentic selves and are honoured and loved for it. That we may feel safe and engage in the holy work of loving ourselves so that we can love others. Kedoshim teaches us the toxicity of the ‘closet’ in the broadest sense of the word: of emotions, desires and identities that are hidden and repressed and deemed shameful. A holy community breaks down those barriers; turns curses into kindnesses and stumbling-blocks into stepping stones. 

Let us rise to the challenge.

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