Author Archives: Rabbi James R. Michaels

Rabbi James R. Michaels

About Rabbi James R. Michaels

Rabbi James Michaels is the Director of Pastoral Care at the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington in Rockville, MD.

Eichah: Where Are We Now?

The following article is reprinted with permission from

The yearly Torah reading cycle is almost as unpredictable as the Jewish calendar. It’s nearly impossible to predict the exact date a Torah portion will be read; sometimes two portions are read together, other times separately, just to make the puzzle even harder. But certain features of the yearly cycle are a constant. For example, on Shabbat before Tisha B’Av [the fast of the ninth of the month of Av] we always read the first Torah portion in D’varim, or Deuteronomy.

I have no way of proving it, but I believe this is no coincidence. On the contrary, I think it’s all based on one word found in Deuteronomy 1:12. The verse begins with the word “eicha“–the Hebrew name for the book of Lamentations, which is read on the eve of the fast. In fact, the tradition on this Shabbat is for the Torah reader to depart from the musical cantillation we normally chant, and to sing that one verse in the special melody for Lamentations. When Tisha B’Av begins on a Saturday night, at the conclusion of Shabbat D’varim as it does this year, evoking the mood of the coming fast when we read this verse is especially heartrending.

Verse 1:12 reads: “How can I bear unaided the trouble you cause, the burden and the bickering?” Its plaintive nature evokes the rhetorical nature of the question; there truly is no answer, only a moan, and a cry of despair.sad woman

The word “eichah” occurs only 18 times in the entire Bible. In each instance, it conveys this rhetorical complaint. But the same Hebrew letters, vocalized differently appear one other place, in the book of Genesis. After Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, God asks them, “Ayekah,” which means, “Where are you?” The traditional explanation for this question is not that God is asking the location of the first humans. Rather God is asking them, “Where are you morally? Have you grown, have you learned anything?”

Our sages have traditionally looked at the rhetorical question “eichah” and read it with the very real question “ayekah” in mind. Yes, we mourn for the tragedies of our people. Yes, we allow ourselves the luxury of anguish at the calamities that dot our peoples’ history. But where are we? What have we learned from that history? To ask the first question and not attempt to answer the second would be an exercise in shallowness. Not only that, it wouldn’t be the Jewish thing to do.

Each summer, Shabbat D’varim and Tisha B’Av occur close to the anniversary of the first atomic bomb at Hiroshima. Each year, there is a discussion about whether it was right to drop the bomb when and where we did. I always view this discussion as an exercise in futility. Dropping the bomb was an act of war; in war, armies are concerned with winning, not what is morally right.

Recent publications, however, have shown a deeper and more significant issue: the process that led to the decision to drop the bomb. In the high echelons of the U.S. military, there was very little discussion at all. The generals knew we had the weapon, and wanted to use it. Once the process was set in motion, no one stopped to ask whether the target was the correct one, whether it had military value, or if the A-bomb would usher in a new era in world history. In short, no one bothered to ask what the implications of using this horrifying new weapon would be.

The arguments about the justification for dropping the bomb won’t change past history. But we still have the obligation to ask “ayekah”–where are we? We can’t undo what was done more than 50 years ago, but we can hope that our leaders will be prudent in the present about decisions with catastrophic consequences.

We should also ask the same question on a personal level. So often, the major decisions we make are not made in dramatic circumstances, but rather on the spur of the moment: Whom can we help today? Are we influenced by that person’s race or ethnicity? Do we allow superficial distinctions to deter us from seeing the common humanity in all people? Perhaps most important, once we’ve started moving in one direction, do we ever stop to evaluate where we’re going, and whether we need a mid-course correction? Those are the questions that we should ask on Shabbat D’varim, as we read the first chapters of Deuteronomy.

Rabbinic midrash, or interpretation, tells us that in the wilderness, our people would recount their sins each year on Tisha B’Av, realizing that they bore the punishment for their gravity. Each year, they would be given the message that they hadn’t been totally forgiven. Then, just before they entered the land, they knew that the time had come for a new beginning, as God had would finally answer, “I have forgiven.”

On Shabbat morning, when we hear the Torah reader intone the word “eicha” let us ask ourselves “ayekah”–Where are we? And if we can answer that we have indeed learned to question the little decisions that can lead to big calamities, then perhaps we will begin to sense a new dimension of God’s favor.

Ascending Towards Accessibility

Provided by, an on-line Jewish magazine dedicated to pursuing justice, building community, and repairing the world.

Here’s a riddle I used to ask: Why couldn’t our Patriarch Jacob daven (pray) in most synagogues? Because he was lame, and probably couldn’t climb the stairs.

I don’t ask that question so much these days, because most synagogues have taken steps to provide facilities for those with physical disabilities. Having presided over one such effort, I can testify to how a synagogue’s spiritual environment is improved by these changes.

In fact, it’s in the spiritual realm that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has made the greatest impact: As of 1998, houses of worship of all religious denominations were in greatest compliance–even though they were excluded from the act’s requirements!

Good for us! But before we break our arms patting ourselves on the back, let’s realize that there’s much more to be done. In fact, our history of excluding people with disabilities goes back to the Torah.

In this week’s Torah portion, we read the qualifications of a kohen, a priest: among those who are excluded is anyone "who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long; who has a broken leg or a broken arm; or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf…" (Leviticus 21.18-20)

Historians and biblical scholars suggest that this law was one of several which kept the priesthood untainted by contact with anyone who was not considered a "whole person." (Among others, such persons included women and the poor.) Whatever spiritual merit may have been found in this practice, it had the effect of gross discrimination: any kohen born with or acquiring one of these conditions was out of a job.

We see another example in the Talmud‘s frequent statement that an imbecile, deaf person, or a minor lack legal status. Although later Jewish law mandated that the second category only applied to a deaf mute, people in both categories–as well as those with poor vision or learning disabilities–were usually not educated and often left out of synagogue life.

Some Examples

Some recent examples:

I grew up with a Jewish girl who was developmentally challenged and also severely visually impaired. While her younger siblings excelled in Hebrew school, the rabbi recommended that she not be trained for Bat Mitzvah. Twenty years later, she demanded the right to have one, and actually learned to chant a Haftarah (reading from the Prophets or Writings) and most of the service. She still lives in my hometown and attends services regularly.

When I went to my first pulpit, there was a 12 year-old boy who had learned nothing in religious school. He was mentally bright, but couldn’t do the work. Naturally, he was a behavior problem, and was considered a waste of time and effort by the teachers. I suggested to his mother that he be tested for learning disabilities. When he was found to have them, we were able to set up special learning situations for him. He suddenly excelled, and learned the material for his Bar Mitzvah in a few months. I wonder how many other "poor students" and "behavior problems" in our afternoon and day schools have actually had learning disabilities.

I recently became aware of a synagogue in Detroit that has had several Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies for autistic children. Apparently they’ve established a reputation for sensitivity and skill in this area of special education. But why is there only one such synagogue in the entire community that can do this?

To be sure, there are wonderful examples of people and schools that have done fantastic work in educating students with various challenges. Rabbi Shlomo Williger, a mental health chaplain in New York City, specializes in helping Orthodox children with Down Syndrome. For many years, the Conservative movement’s Ramah Camps have offered the Tikvah program for developmentally challenged boys and girls. Rabbi J. David Bleich has published articles urging more sensitive treatment for deaf students, basing his position on responsa from acknowledged experts in Jewish law.

I fear, however, that these examples are simply the exceptions that prove the rule. Too many children and adults are excluded from meaningful participation in Jewish life because the community has not found ways to respond to their special needs.

It usually takes the persistence of one family to push the larger community toward grudging accommodation of their special needs. It is time for us to alter this pattern. Here are some suggestions for each synagogue or JCC to begin the process:

Obtain infrared transmitters and earphones for the hearing impaired. Arrange for American Sign Language translators at every service and program so deaf people will always feel welcome.

Provide and publicize the availability of special instruction for children with learning disabilities.

Purchase a sturdy folding table as an alternative "shulchan" or Torah reading table. It can be placed on the same level as the pews. The Torah scroll can be placed on it, and people who have difficulty going upstairs can receive aliyot (the honor of going up to recite the blessings accompanying the Torah reading).

Parashat Emor concludes with the admonition, "There shall be one law for the stranger and the home born." (Leviticus 24.22) If there is one standard of justice for all, it should apply to those who have historically been excluded. We should resolve to help every challenged Jewish child and adult find a place in the Jewish community.