Sermon for Jewish Disability Awareness Month
Rabbi David Kaufman
February 20, 2009
Tamara Green entered the world of chronic illness and disability, unexpectedly, one morning over 40 years ago. "I woke up feeling like I'd been pushed down a flight of stairs," she says. "Every part of me was charley-horsed. I was nauseous."
Years of misdiagnoses of her severe disease of the connective tissue were followed by decades of treatment (drugs, crutches, feeding tubes, physical therapy). Now a professor of classics at Hunter College, she is a founder of the Jewish Healing Institute.
Tamara Green wrote a little over a decade ago that:
For nearly thirty years I have lived with a debilitating chronic illness, sometimes with detachment, sometimes with an amorphous sense of unease, and sometimes with a great deal of rage. It is not immediately life-threatening, although there have been moments when it has been, but it is life-encompassing; and one of the most painful lessons I have learned from this illness is that what is most difficult to come to terms with is not the possibility of dying from it, but living with it.
According to the National Organization on Disability, 54,000,000 Americans have a significant disability. The logo for accessibility that you see on signs around the country depicts an individual in a wheelchair, yet only 1.4 million of that 54 million use wheelchairs or scooters. Nearly 26 million have hearing impairments and others have needs that may not be easy to spot or even to describe. The 54 million Americans with disabilities constitute one in six Americans.
They are not “the other.” They are US. Most of us here tonight will fall into the category of “people with disabilities” at some point in our lives. We will wake up in the morning one day and realize that we too have to come to terms with “living with it.”
This year, for the first time, many in the American Jewish community recognize February as Jewish Disability Awareness Month. While many Washington D.C. area synagogues have observed this event for the past eight years, this year is the first time the event is being recognized on a national level.
Jews around the United States are looking for new ways of inclusion and welcoming for those with special needs already inside of—or perhaps excluded from—our communities.
A friend of mine from rabbinical school, Rabbi Heidi Cohen of Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana, California wrote in a sermon about welcoming in her congregation that:
Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 teaches that "A human being mints many coins from the same mold, and they are all identical. But the Holy One, Blessed be God, strikes us all from the mold of the first human, and each one of us is unique." Each of us is a bearer of the Divine image although we come in an infinite variety of sizes, shapes, abilities, and disabilities. Therefore, each of us must be treated with kavod, with respect.
The Jewish Tradition offers some thoughts and advice about how to go about doing that. Let me begin with the most well known, yet perhaps most difficult of all to accomplish.
In Leviticus 19:14, we find “You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind.” It seems easy enough to do. We tend to look at this verse, particularly the second part as if all we have to do is not go out of our way to make things difficult. Yet what is the verse really telling us?
This is a directive that is literally applicable on a playground. Children often treat those who are different in not-so-nice ways. They may well tease someone who is deaf by talking behind their back, by ridiculing and then acting as if nothing happened. They could well find it amusing when someone blind would be made to trip. One can envision these things. We may even remember seeing similar behavior on the playgrounds of our youth.
Adults certainly could do these things as well, but generally learn over time that we ourselves come to be treated in the way that we treat others. In fact, one of the best measures of what kind of person we are is the way in which we treat those with less power than we have. We learn not to commit overt acts that result in ridicule of others, at least those who are innocent and do not deserve it.
Those who are more worldly come to realize that, as it is said in the Talmud, K’dushim 70a, “When a person insults someone else it is his own defect that he is revealing.” And those who a bit more life experience come to agree with the words of Ben Azzai in Pirkei Avot 4:3:
Do not disdain any person; Do not underrate the importance of anything—For there is no person who does not have his hour, and there is nothing without its place in the sun.
Our Tradition teaches us that people who are disabled can do wonderful things, not only for themselves, but for our people. Someone who is impaired of speech can even speak as God’s own mouthpiece.
And Moses said unto Adonai: “Adonai, I am not a man of words, either in the past, nor now, since you have spoken unto Your servant; for I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue.’ (Exodus 4:10)
Our Tradition teaches us that Moses was not the swiftest of learners either.
In commentary to the Talmud Yerushalmi, Masechta Horayot, the following Gemara appears (Horayot 3:5):
Rav Yochanan said: ‘During the entire forty days and nights that Moshe Rabbeinu spent on Har Sinai, he kept learning the Torah and forgetting it. Finally, it was given to him as a gift. Why did this happen? To provide an answer, a motivation, for the slow learners. The P’nai Moshe explains: “Why,” the Gemara asks, “was the Torah not given to Moshe as a gift at the outset?” To provide an answer for the slow learners who forget whatever they learn. When they ask, “Why should we labor for no purpose?” the answer will be from Moshe himself, who learned and reviewed even though it was all forgotten, until finally it was given to him as a complete gift.
Our Tradition speaks of the deaf, the blind, those with speech impediments, those with learning disabilities and in every instance we are encouraged to help the person with the disability to overcome it.
We read in Deuteronomy, “If there be among you a needy person, you shall not harden thy heart, but shall surely open your hand.” It is a statement about giving to the poor, but just as certainly it is a statement about reaching out to lend a hand. It is a statement about our need not just to avoid placing stumbling blocks, but to look ahead and make sure that stumbling blocks are not already there. We need to actively help, not merely to avoid causing problems.
Yet, too often we do place stumbling blocks and put forth insults because we are not conscious of the needs of those around us. We simply are unaware that we offend, cause discomfort, or even harm. Our access doors and aisles are not wide enough, our thresholds too high. Our ramps too steep or too narrow. Our texts too small. Our amplification too low. Our patience too short.
As a congregation, we have tried in recent years to be more accommodating, but our building is hardly completely accessible. Staff offices and meeting rooms are on different levels without an elevator and the most easily accessible doors are not opened by our buzzer, but require someone to physically unlock them.
That said, we have also removed pews in our sanctuary to make it easier for those in wheel chairs to be seated comfortably and we have a ramp that allows those in wheel chairs to access the bimah that we bring out whenever it is needed. We have also worked on improving our sound system so that everyone can hear clearly.
We have tried and we continue to try to make the Temple a welcoming place for everyone who wishes to be in our midst.
When her Jeep wrapped around a tree off an icy road a decade ago, Rabbi Lynne Landsberg's world was shattered. The 30th woman ordained by Hebrew Union College, Rabbi Lansberg was the Mid-Atlantic Regional Director for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations at the time of her accident. The accident left her in an almost six-week coma that turned into a prolonged, but dramatic recovery.
Now Senior Advisor and Activist for People with Disabilities at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Rabbi Lansberg came to the L’taken Seminar that we attended three weeks ago and spoke with us about her life and the lives of Americans with disabilities. She told us about her brain-injury and her now decade long struggle for independence. The students and their chaperones were spellbound by her strength, her spirit, and her zeal for life as she uttered words that she has spoken to many an audience over the past few years:
"Before my injury, I belonged to one minority that was cohesive, strong and articulate—the American Jewish community. Now I belong to a second minority that is often unseen and unheard—persons with disabilities."
We read in this week’s Torah portion, “You shall not oppress the stranger, the one who is different, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”
This month and going forward, let us SEE and let us HEAR the needs of those with disabilities. Let us pay attention. Let us reach out our hands. Let us speak up and let us speak out.
After Moses questioned God about his difficulties with speech, God responded.
“And God said to Moses: Who gives man speech? Who makes him mute or deaf, seeing or blind?” (Exodus 4:11)
The answer in the Book of Exodus is God. Yet my friends, WE are God’s instruments. Let us do our best to help improve the lives of all of those affected by disabilities.
Kein yehi ratson! May it be God’s will!