By Rabbi Alex Lazarus Klein
This is the week my thoughts inevitably turn to a dearly departed congregant, Michele B. She came to Buffalo about a decade ago, as a single woman in her sixties without a single local connection. Along the way, she fulfilled a lifelong goal of becoming Jewish, as well as enrolling in an academic program toward a degree in social work. She was also a fierce advocate for disability rights. And, she did all this without being able to see.
This week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, asks us to “see” the blessings and curses God has put before us. Blessings and curses are, of course, not the types of things that are easily seen. They can be right in front of us and we may not see them at all. But, what bothers me about the portion, and why I think of Michele B., is the suggestion that sight is required at all. Michele B. would often tell me about situations where her particular disability was not accounted for and where people would react in such a way, like speaking louder in her presence, that would make her feel less than. When this happened, Michele B. would stand her ground and demand equal treatment. I, often, would be the beneficiary of the many gift cards she would receive from businesses doing their best to apologize.
I admired her strength and determination, the chutzpah that allowed her to do this, not just for herself, but for others that would encounter similar mistreatments. I was astounded by her ability to navigate a “sighted” world completely blind. In the many conversations we would have at her apartment about faith, I would watch as she prepared tea, carefully pouring it into the cup without spilling a single drop.
Michele B. went blind when she was in her late teens, ended up going through heartache and divorce, the estrangement of her only child. Yet, she persevered, never taking “no” for an answer, continuing to push long after others would have grown discouraged.
Several years ago, after losing track of her for a little while, I found out from a friend of hers that she had died. She had little in the way of finances, but through the generosity of one of our local Jewish funeral homes, we found a way to property memorialize her. I got to know her daughter, an amazing musician living on the West Coast and I learned about pieces of Michele B.’s life I had not known before. We buried her in a small ceremony with just a few friends and family members. I picture her now, up in heaven arguing with God, wondering how the Almighty could name a Torah portion “Re’eh/“See” when so many among us are unable to do so.
Rabbi Alex Lazarus Klein is a spiritual leader at Congregation Shir Shalom.