February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, a time to shine a light on a topic that receives too little attention, given its importance. It’s not overstating the case to claim that the way a community welcomes and includes people with disabilities goes to directly to its character, to its soul. My evidence to back this claim: this week’s parashah, yitro.
In Exodus 19, the people are preparing for Torah to be revealed, to hear God’s voice. And while the Ten Commandments which appear in the following chapter get much of the attention when we read this portion, there’s much we can learn from the set-up to that pivotal moment. What needed to be in place for God to be made manifest in the world, for Torah to unfold?
One set of answers is derived from Exodus 19:2:
וַיִּסְע֣וּ מֵרְפִידִ֗ים וַיָּבֹ֙אוּ֙ מִדְבַּ֣ר סִינַ֔י וַֽיַּחֲנ֖וּ בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר וַיִּֽחַן־שָׁ֥ם יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל נֶ֥גֶד הָהָֽר׃
Having journeyed from Rephidim, they entered the wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the wilderness. Israel encamped there in front of the mountain.
Ears sensitive to the Hebrew will note that the number changes from plural to singular halfway through the verse: they journeyed…they arrived…they encamped…and then, abruptly, Israel encamped, the verb indicating that Israel here is a singularity. Vayichan sham yisrael.
On this grammatical quirk, Rashi comments: Ish echad b’lev echad. “One person, with one heart.” This gathering of somewhere north of a million Jews was united like they’d never been before, and it was their unity that made them a fitting vessel for Torah.
At first glance, this doesn’t seem like a teaching we’d celebrate and transmit at Judea Reform. Here we celebrate diversity, and the idea that groupthink is a gateway to wisdom doesn’t sit well with many of us. But the teaching goes deeper than that. Three of Rashi’s latter-day students picked up on his comment and expand upon it ways that are helpful to a community that wants to be a place of Torah.
The first teaching returns to the keyword, vayichan, and draws out another element: vayichan sham yisrael, Israel was gracious there. Relating the word conventionally translated as “encamped” to the word chen, meaning grace, Yisrael Yitzchak Kalish of Vorka sees the fact that every member of the community saw every other member in the best possible light, with graciousness of spirit, as what made them worthy to receive the Torah. Each of them strove to be their very best selves, and each of them understood that part of being their best meant knowing that everyone else was trying, too. They were ish echad b’lev echad, one and the same in this attitude, no daylight between them.
When I speak to people living with disabilities, or people parenting children with disabilities, I hear just how important this lesson is. The work they are doing, day in and day out, can be isolating. It is exhausting. They want their synagogue to a refuge, and a support…and very often, it is just that. But sometimes, it isn’t. Sometimes it’s a lonely place. Mostly what people and families living with disabilities want is what everyone else wants: to be seen. It’s not pity that they seek, nor praise. They want to be smiled at. To be greeted. To be known.
Another “one person with one heart” lesson: This teacher, the Or Yesharim, focuses on the significance of the moment, and its consequence. “When the Jewish People are ish echad b’lev echad, united in heart and spirit, they are able to stand “opposite the mountain.” In other words, there is great power that comes along with that chen, that grace, with seeing each other in the very best light. The yetzer hara, the evil inclination, is the mountain the Or Yesharim has in mind. When we fall out of that chen, that graciousness, and find less noble thoughts rising up in us because someone who is different than us is making us uncomfortable, that’s our yetzer talking to us.
The person whose behavior in synagogue distracts us, or whose mobility challenges at the oneg table inconvenience us, or whose social mannerisms annoy us — that person’s presence is in truth not a distraction, an inconvenience, or an annoyance. It is a gift. It is a gift because that person becomes our teacher, showing us something about ourselves, leading us back to where we really belong: with our people — all of them — at the foot of that mountain, hearts open to Torah.
Is the work easy? Of course it isn’t. If it were, there wouldn’t be a Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. Rabbi Meir of Premishlan points out, with humor and irony, that this moment of unity came just before Torah was received…and it was never, ever repeated. From here on in it’s vayachanu, they all encamped, each in their own way, each convinced that their Torah was the right Torah, the only Torah. They were stuck in what Rumi (as read into English by Coleman Barks) calls “ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing,” what teachers in the Eastern traditions call “Comparing/Judging Mind.” It’s hard to stay in a gracious place…but it’s so very important. Your neighbors’ hearts and spirits depend on it. The heart and soul of this community depends on it.
So much of what we do in this area is good, even great. We have a dedicated team of leaders who pay attention to the issue not only in February but all year ‘round, making sure that our school, our services, our B’nai Mitzvah program, and more happen with an eye toward inclusion. My prayer is that with this year’s Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, our community will even more deeply learn these lessons and live them out. Thus will we live out our promise (vv. 5-6): “You shall be my treasured possession…a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.”
Ken yehi ratzon – May it be so.