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Acharei Mot-Kedoshim

Rabbi Samuel Chiel, Greater MetroWest Rabinic Cabinet
Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Emanuel, Newton, Mass. 

Among the riches of this week’s Torah reading, which is packed with an astonishing variety of mitzvot, is this surprising admonition: “You shall not insult the deaf …” (Leviticus 19:14).

Why would anybody want to insult a deaf person? Isn’t it obvious that such a person has a handicap? Wouldn’t anyone respond to this person with compassion and understanding?

I asked this question recently of an adult class I teach. One student related that her elderly mother, of whom she is the primary caregiver, is hearing impaired. Although she loves her mother very much, she invariably has to raise her voice in order for her mother to hear her. By the end of an hour together, the daughter finds herself angry and irritated, and later she feels guilty for having become surly and impatient. “I certainly would never ‘insult’ my mother,” she concluded, “but when I leave her, I feel disloyal and disrespectful to her.”

Perhaps this is Torah’s purpose: to caution us about the complexities of dealing with a person whose hearing is impaired.

Another student told of an incident that took place at a Passover Seder. His father is profoundly deaf, and at first family and friends tried to include him in their animated discussion. After a while, they found shouting to him too tiring and began to speak in normal voices. My student said sadly, “It was as if he wasn’t there.”

For those of us blessed with good hearing, it is hard to understand the challenges faced by a hearing impaired person every day–on the street, on the phone, watching TV, trying to understand a movie or play. The Gallaudet Encyclopedia of Deaf People and Deafness describes the psychological impact of deafness on a person: the strain of concentrated listening and lip-reading leads to fatigue, which further reduces the person’s ability to cope with each day’s problems. The hearing impaired person may feel isolated, which often leads to a desire to withdraw even further from socialization.

Verse 14 ends: “You shall fear your God: I am the Lord.” Why does the Torah add that language to this particular mitzvah?  To remind us that if we are callous in our dealings with hearing impaired people, our compassionate God feels their hurt and admonishes us to do the same, even if it requires great effort on our part. If we demean the dignity of another person, we are diminishing Tzelem Elokim, the concept that each of us embodies the reflection of God’s image. If we don’t treat the hearing impaired with caring and empathy, we diminish our own sensitivity.

Next time you deal with a hearing impaired person, recall this great verse and make the effort treat this person with dignity and respect. It may be difficult and at times exasperating, but we are members of a holy people. Our kedushah, holiness, requires us to become aware of the feelings of every person, particularly those who through no fault of their own find life especially difficult.

A series of inspirational messages on the weekly Torah portion by members of the Greater MetroWest Rabbinic Cabinet.