Yom Kippur 2012: Getting out of our cages

Adapted from my remarks on Yom Kippur evening 2012.  I learned the Mohini story from a piece by Rabbah Sarah Hurwitz in the amazing collection at www.jewelsofelul.org.   Rabbi Sacks' teachings about Ludwig Guttmann are at chiefrabbi.org.

In early 1960, the zoo was presented with a gift - a giant white tiger named Mohini.  At that time, she was one of only seven giant white tigers in the world,
and the only one outside of India.  She was immediately the star attraction at the National Zoo.

In that era before zoos made efforts to imitate animals’ natural habitats, Mohini spent her days walking back and forth in a 12 foot by 12 foot cage.  In the mid-60’s, though, the zoo decided to build a larger habitat for Mohini so she could run and explore and live a life more similar to a tiger in the wild.

But something surprising happened.  Mohini came into her new habitat but started pacing in a 12-by-12 square in the corner of the habitat, a square of the same dimensions as the cage that used to be her home.  And that’s basically where she stayed, until her death in 1979.

Regardless of the fact that as a giant tiger, Mohini was one of the most powerful animals in American captivity, she had learned her place - and her place was a 12x12 cage. And even when she had the opportunity to venture outside of it, she declined.  She literally did not leave her comfort zone.

The Jewish people knows a thing or two about how difficult it is to unlearn the limitations that one has learned.  In fact, it could be said that this actually the reason why the Torah is quite as long as it is.   With the exception of the book of Genesis and the first two chapters of the book of Exodus, the entire remainder of the Torah takes place over approximately a 41-year period.  The next several chapters of the book of Exodus are the account of the ten plagues and the Exodus from Egypt.  And then the remainder of the book of Exodus, plus the entirety of the books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, take place during the forty years of wandering in the desert.

Why forty long years?  Having helped to remove Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, God now needs to remove slavery in Egypt out of the Israelites.  Having been treated for so long as chattel,  the people act like chattel.  They are utterly lost without someone to give them specific instructions.  They are terrified of the smallest provocation.  They continually announce, “Let us band together and return to Egypt.”  The cage with which they were familiar was more comforting to them than the challenges with which they were faced.  It is no coincidence that the Divine instruction that appears more frequently in the Torah than any other is ‘al tira’ - don’t be afraid.  Over time, the people mature, they confront their fears, they unlearn their learned helplessness, and with God’s help they leave their cage and become a people that is truly free.

Many of us know the sting of being put in a box or a cage, of being steered to early conclusions about what kind of person we are, or what kind of achievements we are capable of.  I know someone with a beautiful voice who never sings in public because she was told at an early age that she couldn’t sing. I know people of uncommon perceptiveness and intellectual ability who rarely use those abilities because they were not nurtured.  And I know of people with physical or intellectual disabilities whose lives are held back not so much because of their special needs themselves, but because of their self-perceptions.  And this is why one of the greatest gifts that can be nurtured in people with special needs is the opportunity to be confident about themselves and encouraged to be what they can be.

I learned from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, about a German-Jewish doctor named Dr Ludwig Guttman.  By the early-1930’s, he was recognized as the top neurosurgeon in all of Germany.  But when Hitler came to power, Dr Guttmann was fired from all his hospital and academic positions.  As soon as he could, in 1939, he left Germany and came to London,

where he developed a special interest in working with people with spinal cord injuries.  And in 1944, he was invited to be the founding director of the British National Spinal Injuries Centre.

In 1944, the prevailing medical approach to paraplegics - whether in Britain or almost everywhere else in the world - was that they were people whose lives were essentially over.  Since they could not be cured, they tended to be institutionalized, sedated, and kept in bed.  But Dr Guttman believed that there was absolutely no reason why these people could not be treated as the human beings they are, and why they should not have the same full life ahead of them that would be expected of people WITHOUT injuries, including the opportunity to work, to love, to get married, if they choose, and all other joys and life experiences of any other human beings.

To the consternation of much of his staff, and frankly, of many of the patients themselves, Dr Guttmann immediately shook things up.  He started by reducing the patients’ painkillers, and demanding that every patient be moved to be facing the opposite direction every two hours - both to avoid bedsores and to forestall monotony and hopelessness.  He insisted that patients sit up in bed,

Then insisted that they be taken out of bed and put in wheelchairs.  Today we think that nothing could be more natural, but in much of the world in the 1940’s, this was a ludicrous idea.

And when Dr Guttmann realized that the patients needed some motivation
to focus on strengthening their bodies, he began to organize competitive games for the patients in their wheelchairs - sometimes against the staff, also in wheelchairs, and sometimes against each other.

By 1948, when the Olympics were held in London, Guttmann organized a full set of parallel sports competitions for people with spinal cord injuries and other disabilities -- which eventually grew into the International Paralympics.  The games played a major role in transforming medical opinion and public opinion of what people with severe physical disabilities could accomplish, much as the Special Olympics has done for people with intellectual disabilities.

Maybe it shouldn’t be coincidental that an actively involved Jew and survivor of Nazi Europe was the one to invent the Paralympics.  The Jewish people knows a thing or two about clipped wings, about untapped potentials.

For Chief Rabbi Sacks, Dr Ludwig Guttmann’s activities are a nearly exact parallel to what we are all trying to accomplish, with God’s help, on these Yamim Nora’im - these days of awe.  With God’s help, we are inspired to adopt a new vision of who we can be and what we are capable of.  And then we are inspired to go through the process of actually getting there - a process that is often painful and uncomfortable but that leads us in the end to a new way to live, enabling us to transcend the barriers that we never thought we could cross.

It’s one of the greatest gifts we can give to ourselves - and it’s an even greater gift when we can give it to someone else - when we can help someone who feels only limitation after limitation to understand what he or she can actually achieve.

One of the greatest 19th century Lithuanian rabbis, Hayyim of Volozhin,
managed to found a major institution of learning and write several important and enduring books even though, as a child, he had very little interest in Torah study - and he didn’t appear to have much aptitude for it, either.
How did this transformation take place?  Reb Hayyim would tell the story that, at long last, he decided to abandon his Torah studies and go to a trade school.
Tearfully he told his parents of his decision.
But later that night, he had a dream in which he saw an angel holding a stack of beautiful books. "Whose books are those?" he asked.
“They are yours,” answered the angel, “if you have the courage to write them.”


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