Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month

It was a few days before our Berman Mercaz Limud model seder. As I was heading home for the day, I said to Rabbi Maderer in passing, “I’m off to boil six dozen eggs or so.” She looked at me incredulously, “Why exactly are you boiling all those eggs?” I explained that we had done a sign-up for our model seder and most of the items on the list had been covered but not enough families signed up for the hard boiled eggs and I was just going to do it myself.

Rabbi Maderer, an amazing mentor, then gave me some great advice that will always stay with me; she said, “You did not become a rabbi to boil six dozen eggs, you became a rabbi to empower others to boil eggs!”

And she was right. Although it probably took longer to find enough families to boil the eggs than it would have to just do it myself, I learned a valuable lesson that day about the role of a leader vis-a-vis the greater community.

In this week’s parsha, Yitro, Moses learns a similar lesson from his father-in-law, Jethro (or Yitro in Hebrew). When Jethro sees Moses single-handedly serving as judge for every single minor dispute among the Israelites, he pulls his son-in-law aside and says, “What you are doing is not good – lo tov.” (Exodus 18:17) This is one of only two places that this phrase, lo tov, occurs in the Torah. The other (Genesis 2:18) is, “it is not good for man to be alone.” We cannot lead alone; we cannot live alone.

Moses and I both learned an important lesson – we cannot do it alone. We need every part of our community in order to be whole. For both Moses and me, including others in the community is not just a nicety, but a requirement.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks takes this idea of inclusion a step further by looking at the final verse in Jethro’s advice to Moses. Jethro ends his talk with Moses by saying, “If you do this [delegating responsibility] and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and so too all these people will reach their place in peace.” (Exodus 18:23) The first part of this statement makes sense, if you delegate responsibility to the people, “you will be able to stand the strain.”

The last part of the verse is a little more complex, “and so too all these people will reach their place in peace.” What does it mean that they will, “reach their place in peace?” The people are not exhausted, Moses is. How then would they gain by a system of delegation?

To find the answer, Sacks looks to a somewhat obscure text in the Talmud dealing with the nature of mediation. The text from Sanhedrin 6b creates a dichotomy between strict judgement and peace – saying that where there is strict judgement, there is no peace and vice-versa. The Talmud then asks, how can judgement and peace coexist? The answer: mediation. Essentially the sages of the Talmud are saying that if a case goes to court, there is always going to be a winner and a loser and thus some strife even at the end of the case. However, if a case is able to enter mediation before trial, everyone has the opportunity to win through compromise, and there can be peace.

Ingeniously applying this principle to the Israelites of Moses’ day, Sacks points out that Moses would have been a strict judge. Having greater wisdom and intuition than the average Israelite judge, Moses would have almost immediately known in every case who was right and who was wrong and thus would not have been able to offer a solution through mediation. Getting into to Moses’ head, Sacks imagines that Moses would have felt mediation to be unethical if there was already a clear judgement in sight.

However, the average Israelite judge appointed by Moses would presumably not have the same mind for judgement and thus their “ignorance” would allow ethical mediation. It is because of, not in spite of, their lack of special prophetic or legal gifts, that the Israelites, as the verse reads, “will reach their place in peace.” Being impartial mediators and creating peace among their brethren was something ordinary individuals could achieve that even Moses in all his glory could not achieve. This is why a nation is greater than any individual, and why each of us has something to give.

The same is true of our community today. It is because of, not in spite of, those among us with differing abilities that we are such a strong community. This month is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month; a time in our modern Jewish calendar that we celebrate and acknowledge the diversity of our community and how it strengthens us all.

It is because of physically disabled congregants that we sought to embark on the Legacy Campaign to renovate and expand our building. Our addition has done so much more than just create a more accessible building, it has created a more welcoming building for all.

It is because of students with learning disabilities that we brought on a special educator for our Berkman Mercaz Limud. But she has done so much more than just help these students; she has helped all our teachers create more effective classrooms for all learners, regardless of ability.

It is because of children on the autism spectrum that we have created a quiet space during our Purim carnival; a space now used by many different families that may need a break from the noise and energy of the day.

And there is so much more outside of these walls that the entire Jewish community is doing this month and throughout the year to celebrate inclusion. Check out websites like our local Jewish Learning Venture or to see some great resources on inclusion and Judaism. Or go to the National Museum of American Jewish History on Monday for a special President’s Day Sensory-Friendly Access Event from 10 a.m. to noon, where children and teens of all abilities are invited to join in a quiet setting for art activities and story time at the Museum, and participate in a specially designed museum tour.

Later in this week’s portion, Moses receives the Ten Commandments. In a few weeks, we will read about the Golden Calf and how Moses, consumed by anger, smashed the first set of tablets. After carving a new set up tablets, the broken tablets are placed in the ark along with the new.

Why keep the old? Why lug around all that extra weight through the desert? The broken tablets represent all among us who have brokenness in our lives. God made the covenant at Sinai, not just with those free of physical, mental or emotional disabilities – God made that covenant with all Israel. I could almost imagine those Israelites with disabilities in Moses’ time seeing themselves in the broken tablets. And what a statement, to place those tablets, central among the community, in the ark, in the holy of holies, alongside the equally important second set of intact tablets.

I’d like to conclude with one of my favorite traditional Jewish blessings of gratitude.  It reads, “Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha’olam, m’shaneh habriyot.” “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, who varies creation.”  This is the benediction one is supposed to say upon seeing an exceptionally strange-looking person or animal.  

The rabbis teach us that we should say one hundred blessings a day, and they have certainly provided enough material to make that task possible.  There are the many prayers we say before eating different kinds of food and the prayers we say before performing a mitzvah like lighting Shabbat candles.  Reciting these blessings directs our kavannah, our intention, and gives meaning to our actions.  We say HaMotzi before eating and all of a sudden, our meal is elevated into a religious act.  When we recite the blessing before reading Torah, we are reminded of the great gift the Torah is and are, perhaps, more focused on the lessons to be learned from reading it.

There are also prayers for seeing something special.  When one sees a king, he should say, “Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha’olam, shenatan mik’vodo l’vasar vadam,” “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, who has given of Your glory to flesh and blood.”  When one sees the ocean, she praises God “she’asah et hayam hagadol,” “who has made the great sea.”  For lightning, the blessing ends with the evocative “shekocho ug’vurato malei olam,” “whose might and power fill the world.” We have benedictions for seeing natural wonders, wise people, old friends.  It seems that nothing is left out.

This last class of blessings, the ones for seeing something special, has the potential to have an even more powerful effect on us than the others, I think.  The words we recite before an activity are expected; we may have to pause and think of the right formula for the particular meal we are eating or the task being completed, but we know what is coming.  On the other hand, these blessings are for surprises: who knows when we may come across a powerful leader or a funny-looking person?

In order to recite these blessings, we have to be alert and aware of our surroundings.  Not only do we have to be paying attention in order to notice these sights, but we have to cultivate an appreciation for them in order to remember to say the appropriate blessing.  Only we can decide whether the tree we are passing by merits the blessing for beautiful creatures or trees: “Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha’olam, shekachah lo b’olamo.  Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who has such things in Your world.”  These blessings require us to see and be grateful for the beauty in our surroundings.  This attitude towards the world is what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously described as “radical amazement,” one of the key ways he believed people could connect to God.

It is hard enough to remain perpetually amazed at the beauty of the world.  How often do we have time to stop and smell the roses, much less stop, smell the roses, and recite a bracha?  Nevertheless, most of us will agree that we might be more fulfilled, less harried, maybe even happier if we took the time to acknowledge the goodness of creation.  And while we work on developing that virtue, the rabbis also give us an even more difficult task: to bless not only the beautiful, but the strange and off-putting.

My favorite blessing, the one over seeing a strange-looking creature, seems very un-PC.  The Talmud’s list of the people this blessing applies to includes those of a different race, extremely tall or short people, and people with particular physical abnormalities.  It is human nature to make distinctions, to notice those who are different from us.  It is also, perhaps, human nature to be afraid or suspicious of those who are different.

But today, it would be impolite to exhibit our reactions to strange people.  The little kid who says, “Mommy, look at that funny-looking man!” is usually shushed and scolded for being rude, as well she should be.  Like those who insists that they doesn’t see race, we might pretend that we don’t see difference of any kind.  Unfortunately, this attempt to not see difference in people often turns into not seeing different people.  We may be able to refrain from making comments or staring, but all too often, we ease our discomfort by keeping our distance from them.

The blessing for the strange is an antidote to our inclination to turn away.  When we see an occasion to recite it, we are called on to recognize and honor this unusual person by acknowledging that she too was created by God, “B’tzelem Elohim.”  Diversity is to be celebrated.  So as we celebrate Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, may we also find a way to appreciate and be grateful for the differently abled, who are not only gifts from, but reflections of our Creator.  “Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha’olam, m’shaneh habriyot.  Blessed are You, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, who varies creation.”


Shabbat Shalom.