Vayakhel 5779

Vayakhel 5779

This drasha was delivered at Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandrea, VA, March 1, 2019/25 Adar I, 5779

Shabbat shalom! It is my honor and privilege to be with you this Shabbat. I wish to thank the Beth El Hebrew Congregation Inclusion committee as well as Rabbi Spinrad and Cantor Kaufman for welcoming me into your community this weekend. Our Torah portion this week, Parashat Vayakhel, meaning and he assembled, or he gathered together, largely concerns itself with recapitulating the building of the Mishkan or tabernacle, to which we were first introduced in Parashat Terumah several weeks ago. Jewish commentators have noted that the Torah devotes some 400 verses to the construction of the Mishkan. For many commentators, nothing in the Torah is superfluous or redundant. Why, then, does the Torah devote so much space to each and every exacting detail of the Mishkan’s construction, down to the smallest, seemingly least significant detail? It is commonly understood that the Torah here is teaching us a profound spiritual and moral lesson. We care about every detail because every detail matters. We read these Torah portions every year not just because every detail of the building of the Mishkan mattered at one particular time and in one particular cultural and religious context, but because it, though seemingly far removed from our modern Jewish lives and experiences, matters today as well. Though we no longer have a portable sanctuary accompanying us during our wanderings in the desert, and though the Temple no longer stands in Yerushalayim, our Torah’s instructions concerning the fashioning of our portable sanctuary, our dwelling place for God contains much wisdom for our daily lives and our collective experience as Jews.
We are concluding Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month, annually observed in February, though its imperatives extend all year. Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month is a time when Jewish communities globally take stock of where they are in terms of any number of metrics related to disability, whether that is on an individual congregational level, or whether that is with regards to inclusion efforts within larger organizations. This weekend’s theme is all about building an inclusive community in the big tent sense of the word—encompassing disability, of course, but also seeking to take the lessons gleaned from years of work in the disability space and broaden their application to many other areas and groups who may feel their voices aren’t being heard and their unique needs aren’t recognized. Parashat Vayakhel provides us with a blueprint for how we as individuals and communities might begin to shift our paradigms and culture around what building inclusive community truly means and entails.
Our parsha spends significant time describing the beautiful gifts that the Children of Israel bring for the Mishkan’s construction. Everyone whose heart so moved them, who was skilled in a particular area, brought that gift, that skill, that talent, to the construction of the Mishkan. Many of these skills are named, which signifies to us how crucial they truly were. Bring the best of who you are and what you can offer to this holy effort, our Torah proclaims.
Typically, when we think about building inclusive communities, though this is frequently unconscious, we imagine a norm that we are going to have to deviate from, as if there is an us and a them, and though the them might consist of folks who are the us, we forget they are the us because we build communities that center ourselves and folks like us. I believe that this is simply a byproduct of how we humans tend to operate and function in this world. Our awareness is naturally limited by our life experiences and so, when we think about the kinds of groups and gatherings we wish to be a part of, we tend to congregate with folks like us. The us, then, becomes the default norm, the them are outside of the camp, the strangers our Torah commands us to love for we were once strangers in Egypt. This attitude towards inclusion tends to manifest itself in such ways as thinking only about physical accommodations—the ramps, the alternate-format siddurim, the hearing-assistive devices—all of which are fundamental and essential ingredients—but tends to omit those things that aren’t as tangible. Are we creating a welcoming atmosphere, in which the presence and gifts of all are welcomed and embraced? How can we even begin to think about creating a welcoming atmosphere? It feels like quite a daunting, overwhelming, seemingly endless task. And given that, as our Mishnah reminds us in Masechet Sanhedrin, each person is unique unto themselves, how do I know if what I think of as a welcoming atmosphere is welcoming to someone else? How do I navigate the tensions that inevitably arise, the feelings of invisibility that emerge when one group’s needs are placed above another—or, perhaps more importantly, are perceived as such?
Perkei Avot, the Sayings of our Fathers, which is a tractate of the Mishnah or rabbinic oral law and is frequently studied teaches us that though we may not complete a task, we are not free to desist from it. Building inclusive communities in which the gifts, skills and talents of all are cherished takes hard work, and the work is often messy. It does not always bear fruit in the short term, but the long-term investment we make nets us amazing returns. How do we do this transformational work when we might feel like the odds of success are stacked against us and the possibility of failure or perceived failure feels right around the corner?
We must shift the paradigm we use. We live in a culture right now in which urgency feels acute, in which the pressure to get it done and get it right yesterday bears down upon us. And this is quite understandable. For too long, folks on the margins of Jewish community and of our society at large have been excluded. Gradual, incremental shifts sound, often, like an excuse to bide people more time, or like a desire to keep the status quo unchanged. Incremental shifts feel like too little, too late.
I resonate deeply with those who feel they have waited long enough, who feel that their and our communities haven’t wanted their gifts, their talents, their souls, and now that they are starting to do that work, it feels hard to excitedly jump in with both feet. My life experience, in rabbinical school and in general, has taught me that perhaps the most important ingredient in building truly inclusive communities, even more important and lasting than all of the best practices is the genuine, authentic, mutual relationship-building. When we show up in our Jewish communities and in our lives as authentically as we are able, demonstrating a true desire to get to know those who are unlike us as the unique and holy individuals they are, without pretense, our actions start a ripple effect. Just as all of the Children of Israel were commanded to bring their gifts, as their heart so moved them for the building of the Mishkan, we, too, are all needed to affect a lasting change in our communities. Naturally, we cannot expect one individual to do the holy work of showing up authentically and building those mutual, authentic relationships single-handedly. That task is all of ours. Taking a genuine interest in another human being, beyond what they can do for us feels so small but can truly make a huge difference. Even a simple hello at Kiddush or at Friday night oneg means a lot. Feeling like you matter, like you are heard, seen and appreciated, not feeling like you don’t belong or are out of place matters profoundly. It isn’t about liking everyone or getting along with everyone. It’s about each of us, bringing the best of who we are and what we have to offer to make our sanctuaries places in which HaShem’s presence can truly dwell. It’s about radically and deeply living out one of our Torah’s most famously oft-repeated teachings, that every human being is created in the image of God and carries a divine spark within. Do we want to conceal that holy spark through how we show up in the world? Or, do we want to use our God-given free will to reveal increasing light and holiness into our world by making manifest and embodying our Torah’s directive towards us? Living out deeply our Torah’s teachings is a practice. It is far from easy and feels increasingly complicated in our world today. Which means that it is even more essential than it has ever been. Rooted in our tradition’s call to us, let us strive ever always to build sanctuaries in which the gifts of all are welcomed, desired and wanted.

Terumah 5779

This drash was delivered at Congregation Beth El in Bethesda, Maryland.
Parashat Terumah 5779
4 Adar Rishon, 5779

Shabbat shalom! It is a real honor and privilege to be with you all today on this Shabbat in which we lift up, honor and celebrate Jews with disabilities and all that we bring to our sacred communities as we observe Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion month alongside countless other communities across the continent.

For the next few weeks, we will be reading a series of parshiot which outline the construction of the Mishkan—or portable sanctuary—which the Children Of Israel carried with them throughout their wanderings in the desert. Every last detail is tended to. The materials are chosen just so and the specifications, from the dimensions of the Mishkan to the sacred implements within are described with painstaking exactitude. The Torah devotes some 400 pesukim to the construction of the Mishkan and there lies its significance. Were the subject not of such central import, we would not find such tremendously detailed descriptions of every last element of the sanctuary. The fact that the Torah devotes this much space to the Mishkan’s construction instructs us to take to heart just how meaningful this project was.

Our parsha opens with HaShem telling Moses to say to the Children of Israel that all whose heart moves them should bring gifts for the building of the Mishkan, including gifts of gold, silver, copper and beautifully colored yarns and other fabrics. It is significant that HaShem directs this commandment to the entire community, according to their ability or, in the Torah’s words, as their heart so moves them. The Torah is here teaching us that every contribution, no matter of what type or size is of infinite and inherent value. Jewish disability awareness, acceptance and inclusion month was begun nearly a decade ago as a means of lifting up and celebrating the contributions of Jews with disabilities to our Jewish community, as well as offering us a sacred opportunity to do a cheshbon hanefesh as a collective to see where we are excelling and in which areas we might want to strive even higher. As our tradition reminds us in Genesis 1:27, we are all created b’tzelem Elokim—in the image of G-d and as such, we each embody a spark of the divine within. The way in which we carry ourselves through the world and contribute to our communities is unique to us—no human being is created more in the image of G-d than any other. As Rav Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel taught, we each have our own maslul, or path in life, and no two people have the same path. As such, the gifts that we each bring to the building of the Mishkan, with heartfelt intention, reflect our unique capabilities and the innermost desires of our hearts and souls.

We are told in Exodus 25:8 to make for HaShem a sanctuary so that HaShem might dwell amongst us. All of the elaborate work that is going into the specificity of the Mishkan and all of its implements and furnishings is entirely in service of creating a sanctuary in which HaShem’s presence may be felt amongst us. I have been drawn of late to the notion that the Mishkan’s construction isn’t so that HaShem can dwell amongst us as a collective people and nation only, but rather we each contribute to the building of the Mishkan so that HaShem’s presence can dwell within each of us individually. Typically, Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion month is a time for us to assess our physical sanctuaries in line with the first interpretation of this verse. We assess the ways in which we are building physically inclusive sanctuaries in terms of the accommodations in place—ramps, alternate-format siddurim including Braille and large print, or modifications enabling those with hearing impairments to enjoy full access to our prayer and programming. Or we might examine the inclusivity of our synagogue’s other activities including social gatherings, kiddush on Shabbat and festivals, etc. We might pick a priority or two to work on during the coming year, returning to it in the following year and measuring the progress we’ve made or the areas for growth which still remain.

If, instead, we choose to take the second approach, we are compelled to examine how we carry ourselves in the world and whether that is a reflection of the notion that the sanctuaries we build aren’t so that G-d can dwell externally, but rather, our sanctuaries are built specifically and precisely so that G-d’s indwelling presence can be felt internally as a community and within each of us as an individual. In other words, how is my community a dwelling place for the divine? How am I a dwelling place for the divine?
It is easy to use JDAIM as an opportunity to do an external accounting—is our building accessible?—and much harder for us to take a look at our community and the fabric that holds it together and ask, am I building a sanctuary that reflects me and my needs alone, or am I taking to heart that every spark of the divine that we embody can dwell in this holy place? When we build truly and deeply inclusive communities, we are able to make the Divine Presence or Shechinah that much more manifest.

Throughout my Jewish journey, I have been blessed to find myself in countless spaces that did strive, every day to live out our people’s mission to be a light unto the nations. Access isn’t a nice afterthought but rather part of the very fabric with which our communities are built and sustained. And that takes many years of hard and messy work, along with a commitment to remembering that we are all in process, all growing. While in rabbinical school, I encountered many individuals who took a risk—who believed in the potential of a rabbi who presented needs they had never before encountered—and said yes. Perhaps that yes involved out-of-the-box thinking and innovating, perhaps that yes involved rethinking aspects of a course or curriculum, but the enthusiasm of the yes remained a constant, even when getting to that yes took work.

Unfortunately, I have also found myself in far too many spaces in which that hoped-for yes turned out to be a no, in which fear of the unknown overshadowed the ark of possibility, in which the fear of doing the wrong thing meant that nothing was done at all. Getting out of our comfort zones, getting proximate to that which leaves us sitting with just how little we truly know rattles far too many of us. Whether it is out of prejudice or malice, ignorance or fear, the end result remains the same. The sanctuaries, internal and external that we fashion for HaShem do not allow HaShem’s presence to truly dwell because all of the divine sparks that G-d’s children carry within aren’t able to find their spiritual home.

This, truly, is the work of inclusion. We do inclusion when we prioritize relationship, genuine, mutual, reciprocal relationship. Inclusion comes when we remember that each individual is, as our Mishnah in Sanhedrin reminds us, a world unto him, her or their self—a world of complexity, a world of possibility and promise. Inclusion comes when we value the gifts that we each bring to our sanctuaries no matter how big or small, prominent or behind the scenes. Inclusion happens when we concern ourselves more with how people feel inside our sanctuaries than in telling the world how inclusive we are. May we always strive to continue to bring the gifts of our hearts towards building truly inclusive and accessible spiritual homes for us all.

Mishpatim 5779

This commentary was written for the Avodah Jewish Service Corps in 5779/2019.
Mishpatim, our Torah portion for this week, consists of a series of miscelaneous laws covering a wide array of subject matter, everything from the laws of owning slaves (an incredibly important conversation to dig into though that is not our area for this week), the importance of keeping Shabbat and the three pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot and laws of damages.
In the Babylonian Talmud, Masechet or section of Bava Kama, there is a chapter that is frequently learned called HaChovel, which deals explicitly with one of the subject areas in our Torah portion—what happens if a person injures another. Exodus 21:23-25 spells out the penalty—life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, bruise for bruise, etc. Our rabbis are so disturbed by this proscription that they devote an entire chapter to figuring out how to overturn it, using their own svara, an Aramaic term that means moral intuition or reasoning. It is one of the five sources the rabbis in the Talmud use to derive conclusions on matters of Jewish law. Svara is such a significant source that it has the power to overturn the proscriptions found in the written Torah or Five Books of Moses. In this chapter of Talmud, the rabbis conclude repeatedly that when the Torah talks about an eye for an eye, it is really referring to a monetary payment. Why is this such a significant move?
The Talmud is a lot of things—codifications of conversations on all manner of Jewish legal topics, stories about rabbis and other leaders, unfinished lecture notes and incredible religious and life wisdom. We’ve just read Parashat Yitro, in which the revelation of Torah—Matan Torah—occurs on Har Sinai. The rabbis of the Talmud, knowing that Svara can overturn written Torah in practice, also know that they cannot literally take out an eye for an eye from the written Torah text because the Torah is divine, and every letter has infinite significance. Therefore, they have to use a pretty radical set of tools to ensure that laws such as an eye for an eye are never put into practice as they are written. Instead, their meaning and application get completely subverted. In their own ways, the rabbis use the tools they have at their disposal to enact incredible religious and social evolution. I imagine that there were some voices who found the inclusion of so many of the laws in our Torah portion so disturbing that they would have rather those laws be removed from the Torah entirely. And who can blame them? So too, in our own lives and work, there are so many systemic and structural injustices we encounter every day, and we often despair of ever making significant change. We may not have every tool in our toolbox that we wish, or we may not be positioned to make as sweeping or radical change as we would like. I bless all of us that as we continue on our journeys this year and beyond, may we constantly remind ourselves of the ways in which we can make substantive change, no matter how small. When we feel caught in systems and cycles that serve no one, may we remember that even the smallest actions, those things that feel inconsequential add up and have the power to effect sustained, lasting change.

Terumah 5776

This drash was originally delivered at Congregation Beth Israel in Worcester, Massachusetts on February 13, 2016.

Shabbat shalom!!! Thank you so much for having me in your community this Shabbat. It is such an honor and a privilege to be with you. This morning, I am going to be speaking about one of my favorite verses in the Torah, which has always resonated very deeply with me and is emblematic, I believe, of the value that we all hold that inclusion of all in our communities is a must and that each and every human being, regardless of what society tells us to the contrary, is created in the image of God.

Before going into a seemingly endless and incredibly complex description of the building of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary in the desert, God instructs Moses to tell the Children of Israel to build God a sanctuary so that God can dwell amongst them. This verse can be understood in a multitude of ways. On the one hand, it’s a paradox. If God is everywhere, why does God need a sanctuary to dwell in? And if the children of Israel are asked to build God a sanctuary so that God can dwell amongst them, what, exactly are they being asked to do? And furthermore, why on earth does this sanctuary have to be so complicated and so ornate? Wouldn’t we want something simple, easily comprehensible and relatable for all? It seems, on the surface at least, like the barrier to entry—to being involved in the sacred work of construction, despite the fact that gifts are asked from all of the Israelites is quite high. I see this verse as intensely contradictory, which is why I believe it speaks so beautifully to the messiness that is the work of building sacred inclusive communities in which we can bring our full selves.

What does it mean for us in our day to build God a sanctuary in which God can dwell? Though the answer for me is multifaceted and ever-changing, one teaching that is rooted in Chasidism which I find to be both very inspiring and profoundly relevant is this notion that Judaism is a tradition that emphasizes taking the material world in which we all find ourselves and bringing spirituality into that world, lifting up the mundane and making it sacred. It is my belief that this is what is meant by God’s directive to all of us. And the work of transforming our communities in this way is incredibly hard and incredibly messy, but oh so worth it!

Lofty teachings can only get us so far, however. How can we apply this idea in a practical and sustainable way, and what do communities look like when the work of inclusion and integration of Jews with disabilities into all facets of life is realized? As Perkei Avot, the Chapters of the Fathers, a tractate in the Mishnah teaches us, though we may not complete the work, we are not free to desist from it. Though so many of us yearn for progress to come speedily and swiftly, progress, change and transformation come gradually and, in my experience, some of the greatest rewards come through the building blocks of relationships built up over time and after sustained effort and drive.

Though I cannot speak directly to what has gone on in your community around issues of access and inclusion for folks with disabilities, in my experience, through my time as a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary and in many other venues, when the topic of including Jews with disabilities and their families and friends is broached, the angle taken is a practical and programmatic one. How do we make our synagogue buildings and other communal spaces accessible for those who cannot use stairs? What about those who are deaf or hard of hearing—do we have sign language interpretation available or know where to get it? And for folks who are blind and visually impaired, do we have materials in Braille, audio and large print available? How about those in our communities who are living with mental health conditions? Are our communities wholly committed to the critical work of DE stigmatization, have we worked to create synagogue communities that welcome them in with open arms and do not further shame or alienate them? And I am acutely aware that these practical access questions only cover a small subsection of the larger disability community—there are so many unique and varied needs and so many areas in which the resources just aren’t there or the questions haven’t been asked. And I am deeply aware that my own limited perspective means that just as I find myself wholly immersed in the work of inclusion of folks with disabilities into Jewish life from my particular vantage point, I, too, have so much learning and growing to do.

Asking ourselves hard questions about the physical and attitudinal access of our communities is an important first step and ought not be minimized. Nevertheless, it is only the first step. It is much harder, I believe, to commit oneself to the work of inclusion—of Jews with disabilities or any other marginalized group–if we think of them as abstract and not concrete. By abstract I mean people that we see ourselves as in a transactional relationship with, a model that is too often used when we think of community service, for instance, in which one party is the giver and the other the receiver. In such a scenario, often the individual with a disability is in the perpetual role of receiver and presumed to be incapable of reciprocity. The real work begins in earnest, I wholeheartedly believe, when we begin reaching out and engaging in real, mutual, genuine, respectful relationship. When we think of someone as always in the role of the other, the other whom it is our moral, religious or social duty to help, we keep those folks at arm’s length. We don’t allow ourselves to get out of our comfort zones—and getting out of one’s comfort zone, as this introvert well knows, is a challenge for many of us. We might find ourselves suddenly having to grapple with ugly biases or misconceptions that we’d been holding and aren’t proud of. Fundamental and foundational ideas about how the world works might be upended. We might begin to seriously wrestle with what it means to have access or opportunity when another doesn’t. These are all general examples which point to a larger issue, which is that as desperately needed as physical access and attitudinal adjustment on the part of our clergy, congregational and other professionals and lay community members is, what is as equally a crucial ingredient is real work at bringing folks in and extending a warm and genuine hand of friendship.

Too often, what I hear from individuals with disabilities who are trying to access Jewish community is that those around them felt profoundly discomfited by their presence. Folks who have sustained lived experience of instinctively knowing when others are uncomfortable around them for whatever reason, folks for whom disability—perhaps amongst other things as well—has presented a barrier to social inclusion as much as spiritual inclusion are often incredibly reluctant to approach a new synagogue for fear of rejection, as I know from my own life. I am in an incredibly privileged position. I am able to access Jewish spaces and resources and have an amplified voice on disability issues often owing to my being a rabbinical student, and it is because of this that I feel it my personal and sacred responsibility to do all I can to get more of our communities on board with how important it is to include all of us. I, too, know how hurtful it can be when you try to enter a Jewish space and are met with profound coldness. And those memories, particularly when they happen in the context of religious communities, communities in which we’re told we will be loved for who we are and instead are met with the opposite are lasting ones.

Choosing to present yourself to a new community is a tremendous act of bravery, courage and dare I say faith when for your entire life you may have gotten the message in a multitude of ways that you don’t belong, you’re not wanted here. Often, folks assume a default position of not being wanted and not belonging until proven otherwise, which is both a profoundly heartbreaking and immensely understandable position in my view. It is because of this that saying that a community is welcoming isn’t enough—that declaration must be coupled with tangible and sustained action.

As my views on how to practically do the work of inclusion have evolved, I have come to the firmly held belief that relationship is absolutely key. When an individual or family has a connection with people in the synagogue—and not merely because those folks help facilitate access—but because they have been able to connect around a multitude of shared interests and concerns, when genuine, reciprocal relationships begin to form, that’s when the work of inclusion really gets going. All of the accommodations in the world mean little if the individual is alienated from community life. All of the Braille siddurim and chumashim in the world mean little if every Shabbat a blind congregant comes to shul and is completely ignored at Kiddush. All of the supports provided mean little if the autistic child in the religious school is mocked or teased by classmates. In other words, the individuals in our communities with disabilities are yearning to be as integrally a part of the communal fabric as everyone else.

There is an oft-repeated saying in some segments of the disability community that access isn’t an add-on or a nice thing to do—it is the right thing to do. Access, defined broadly as I am trying to do here—is not merely providing the physical or programmatic accommodations needed. It is as much about feeling like every time you are in a space that the totality of your personhood is loved, accepted and respected, and that you are seen for who you truly are—a unique, irreplaceable individual created in the image of God. V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham—we are instructed by God to build a sanctuary so God can dwell amongst us. I noted earlier that having such fixed and complex instructions could be seen as posing a tremendous barrier to participation by the entire community. Making all feel welcome in our communities involves a lot of imagination, willingness to think outside of the box, to make mistakes and to grow from them. Indeed, it takes tremendous courage. God doesn’t leave room for error in God’s instructions to us, and still, the larger message of this pivotal commandment I believe has so much richness and spiritual depth and much to teach us in our own day. God can dwell in those sanctuaries where every person is valued and where we live out the teaching found in Genesis 1:27 that we are all created b’tzelem Elohim—in the image of God. That, I believe, is God’s directive to us in our parsha this week. May we all continue that holy work. Thank you all so much. Shabbat shalom!

Reasonable Accommodations Are A Torah Value

The Book of Exodus introduces us to Moshe, our tradition’s greatest prophet and teacher, who many understand to be a person who lived with a speech disability. In Exodus 4:10-16, G-d informs Moshe that he will lead the Children of Israel out of Egypt—from slavery to freedom. Moshe balks at this tremendous pronouncement. Who am I, he asks, to lead this people? I am slow of speech and slow of tongue. Perhaps Moshe was feeling self-conscious, not able to fully grasp his own potential and greatness. Perhaps he was feeling not up to the task because of his background, living as he had in Pharaoh’s palace.

G-d’s response is powerful in its own right, a direct response to Moshe’s most obvious fear. Exodus 4:11-12 “And the LORD said to him, “Who gives man speech? Who makes him dumb or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now go, and I will be with you as you speak and will instruct you what to say.” (Translation Courtesy of Sefaria).
As a rabbi and someone who is herself blind, I am often asked about the theology in this passage. Truthfully, for many years, I understood this passage quite negatively. Does G-d countenance ableism, the structural, systemic and institutionalized oppression that many people with disabilities encounter on a daily basis? If G-d made me as I am, and the world presents so many limiting barriers to people with disabilities, how can I connect to a G-d like that? Is that not a punishing theology?

In answer, one need only read on. Exodus 4:13-16 “But he said, “Please, O Lord, make someone else Your agent. The LORD became angry with Moses, and He said, “There is your brother Aaron the Levite. He, I know, speaks readily. Even now he is setting out to meet you, and he will be happy to see you. You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth—I will be with you and with him as you speak, and tell both of you what to do–and he shall speak for you to the people. Thus he shall serve as your spokesman, with you playing the role of God to him…”

Despite G-d’s faith in Moshe’s abilities and G-d’s willingness to offer what we call today a reasonable accommodation, Moshe demurs. Please, G-d, pick someone else! It is as if Moshe cannot internalize in his own soul what G-d is telling him. You are perfect, just as you are, because I made you in My image, just as you are.

I can empathize with Moshe’s mindset. As people with disabilities, far too many of us have been told no, you can’t do that, it’s not possible, it’s never been done before, and we often settle, grateful for what access we do have. That, however, is a false sense of gratitude, as though we must apologize for our very existence. For too many of us, with our histories of systemic exclusion in our Jewish communities, imagining anything different is too painful. Sometimes the barriers feel so formidable, and we’ve been told so often that we don’t matter, that we’re too difficult to accommodate that it is easier to walk away and disengage. What Torah are we losing, as am yisrael, when we turn our fellow Jews away? It is as if we take one look at a person with a disability and assume the return on investment, to borrow a term from business is low. But when we invest in all of us, as G-d demands of us, our spiritual return on investment will be so much greater.

G-d knows that Moshe is stuck as a consequence of the messaging he may have received and internalized, just like so many of us. I am the first blind woman in the rabbinate as far as I know, and I, too, find myself not believing things are possible to make accessible because of my own history of exclusion. Sometimes, the hard truth is that accessibility cannot be achieved. Many times, the missing ingredient is attitudinal and what is needed is out of the box thinking and a willingness to take risks.

Despite Moshe’s protestations, G-d knows that heis the right leader. No need to go consult anyone about cost or feasibility of a reasonable accommodation, I’m just going to go ahead and do what is right. Accommodations are foundational, not an afterthought. It’s a reminder to all of us that accommodations allow us to express our most authentic selves, just as G-d intends.

Parashat Vaera 5779

Written as part of my work as Ruach Avodah for Washington, DC.

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Va’era, the second Torah portion in the book of Exodus opens with a divine encounter between Moses and God, in which God tells Moses that God has heard the cries of the Children of Israel. God instructs Moses to tell the Children of Israel that they will soon be redeemed from slavery but, as the Torah describes, the children of Israel were not able to hear or heed Moses because of their shortness of breath. Shortness of breath here can have both a metaphorical and a literal meaning. Certainly, with the hard labor comes incredible depletion and exhaustion, and in such a state, it is nearly impossible to imagine any future at all, let alone a redeemed one. Spiritually or metaphorically, shortness of breath might also say something about a feeling of constriction or impossibility, surely arising out of the physical and structural conditions in which the children of Israel found themselves. So often in our own lives, we cannot hear or heed those who encourage us to aim higher, think more expansively, or engage in imaginative possibility. Frankly, it can feel highly invalidating if such paradigm-shifting comes to us without acknowledgement of the barriers in our path or the circumstances that are very real and tangible which limit our options. Many of us find ourselves in relationship with individuals who have experienced incredible discrimination and marginalization in their lives, particularly if we do direct service work. It would be totally understandable if the children of Israel were incredulous, at best, by Moses’ pronouncement and may have even found it highly invalidating and, so too, it is completely understandable for folks with whom we are in relationship to feel constricted and constrained, knowing how tangibly structural inequality and discrimination have impacted their lives. May we always be mindful to acknowledge and validate those past and ongoing experiences of marginalization, and their tangible tolls, as we work to alleviate the very structures that so limit many of our fellow human beings.

R. Tuchman