Reasonable Accommodations Are A Torah Value

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.