Standing At Sinai with Everyone…

I love spring. I love the warmth, the sense of new life, the sense of rebirth after the winter. But for families with kids with special needs, like mine, spring is also a time of unique challenges: lots of holidays full of potential for sensory overload; lots of end-of-the-school-year events; the school year routine changes, and summer, though optimally a time for relaxing, is often harder to negotiate even than the school year, simply because the day-to-day schedule is so different.

Spring is also a time of graduations, and new chapters for many young people. So for those of us who have children walking a different path, children who are not necessarily able to graduate and move on into new and “exciting” life chapters, it is also a bit of a mine-field socially: you are excited and happy for your friends’ kids, and you have to be adept at side-stepping the small talk at graduation parties when well-meaning acquaintances ask the regular questions: “So what are your kids up to? Where is s/he going to college? What did s/he graduate in? Does s/he have a job yet? Where is s/he going to be living after moving out?” Etc etc….

Some of you know me personally, so you know that I am a musician that wears many hats, and with one of my hats I use music to present about disability awareness and inclusion. Over the years that I have been presenting workshops and concerts, I have found myself curious about how different religious texts speak about inclusion, and I have sometimes reflected these teachings in songs. Most religious and cultural frameworks teach some form of the “golden rule”- to treat others the way one would like to be treated by others. Simple right?

As legend tells it, Rabbi Hillel, who is believed to have lived around 110 BCE – 10 CE, was asked to describe Judaism while standing on one leg, and he is purported to have said, “What is hateful to thee, do not unto thy fellow man: this is the whole Law; the rest is mere commentary, go and study.”

So, not only is it a simple rule, it’s also the most important one…but it doesn’t take much to recognize that our world is not currently functioning according to this teaching, (and maybe never did?) Certainly the judgement, disrespect and manipulative abuse of people with disabilities and special needs is only a small part of this issue.

I ask myself regularly, why can’t we just treat others the way we want to be treated? I think, quite frankly, that we all have contradictory messages in our heads. On one hand, we know that we should be tolerant and compassionate, and on the other hand, we often have subconscious fears of people who are deemed “different” than us in some ways. And when someone has a “disability” as that difference, there is a pushing away that accompanies the fear.

But where does this fear come from? Well, along with the ancient texts teaching compassion, there are also multiple texts that imply that to be different is bad.

The Jewish holiday of Shavu’ot is coming up. Shavu’ot takes place 50 days after Passover, and originally celebrated the first harvest of barley. Over the generations it has also come to be a celebration of the Jewish people receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai. A saying in Jewish teaching is that we should always behave as though we ourselves were standing at Mt. Sinai on that day long ago, part of the crowd that was present and happily accepting the Torah as a guide for how to live.

But there is a legend, a Midrash, called, “The Miracle that Happened to the Israelites with Disabilities When the Torah Was Given.”

(Hebrew below.) The Midrash tells the following story:

Many of the Israelites present that day had disabilities, possibly as a result of the hard labor that they had been forced to do as slaves under Pharaoh in Egypt. Some of them had been hit by falling rocks that broke their hands and cut off their legs. Some of them had been blinded by being hit with something sharp while building the pyramids. Some of them had lost their hearing by….?

God saw this and said “It isn’t fitting that I will give my Torah to people with disabilities.” So, what did God do? God called to the angels to come and heal the people with disabilities.

And how do we know that they were healed? How do we know that there was no one there who was visually impaired? Because the Torah says that everyone could see the voices.
And how do we know that there was no one there who was deaf? Because the Torah says they heard God speaking.
And how do we know that there was no one there who was missing arms? Because the Torah says, “We shall do.”
And how do we know that there was no one there who was missing legs? Because the Torah says, “They stood at the foot of the mountain.”

Oh my. Perhaps whoever wrote this Midrash was someone who thought that it was a gift that the Israelites with disabilities had been healed, because they assumed that of course no one would want to have a disability. Today of course there would be a scathing argument about whether or not a disability should be healed. Let’s put that aside, because likely the intentions there were well-meaning.

But to say that God did not think it was fitting to give the Torah to those with disabilities? I don’t think so. I do think though that this attitude has made its way into our thinking, way down in the shadows, where we cannot see clearly. By reading these kinds of ancient texts we have a wonderful opportunity to bring these thoughts out of the shadows and examine them in the light of modern day thinking.

So here is my Midrash for those with disabilities who were standing at Mt. Sinai with the rest of the Jewish people, waiting to receive the Torah:

Many of the Israelites present that day had disabilities, possibly as a result of the hard labor that they had been forced to do as slaves under Pharaoh in Egypt. Some of them had been hit by falling rocks that broke their hands and cut off their legs. God saw this and said “How wonderful that my Torah will be given to all of my people. Regardless of one’s cognitive ability or physical state, the Torah shall be for everyone.”

And how do we know that even those who were visually impaired were present? Because the Torah says that everyone could see the voices.

And how do we know that even those who were deaf were there? Because the Torah says that the noise was so loud that everyone could hear.

And how do we know that even those missing arms were there? Because the Torah says that everyone will do what is needed.

And how do we know that even those missing legs were there? Because the Torah says that everyone stood at the foot of the mountain.

For this Shavu’ot, as we remember standing at Mt. Sinai, let us remember that we were all there, able bodied and not, ADD and not, Autism and not, with mental health challenges and not, etc…, and we received the Torah all together.
For this very reason, I wrote this song, Beyond The Golden Rule…the first Hebrew chorus reflects the original Torah “golden rule”, to “Love your neighbor as yourself,” but I do think we need to expand who it is we are willing to be compassionate towards, so the second Hebrew chorus says, “Love the one who is different as yourself.” And the third? “Love the stranger as yourself.”

 

 

הנס שנעשה לבעלי המום בעת מתן תורה

בשעת מתן תורה כשיצאו ישראל ממצרים היו בהן בעלי מומים מעבודת הפרך,
שהיו האבנים נופלות עליהם ושוברות את ידיהם וקוטעות את רגליהם. אמר הקב”ה,
אין זה מתאים שאתן את תורתי לבעלי מום. מה עשה? קרא למלאכי השרת,
שירדו ורפאו אותם.
ומנין שלא היו בהם עיוורים? שנאמר: וכל העם רואים את הקולות”.
ומנין שלא היו בהם חרשים? שאמרו: “נשמע”.
ומנין שלא היו בהם קטועי ידיים, גדמים? שאמרו: “נעשה”.
ומניין שלא היו בהם פסחים, נטולי רגלים מפני שנאמר: “ויתייצבו בתחתית ההר.”

Thanks-giving and Compassion-giving

Though our world and Western society are forever changing, and many people bemoan the loss of “the good old days,” the annual American tradition of Thanksgiving is coming, as it does every November in the United States. The name of the holiday serves its purpose well: to remind us to give thanks for our blessings. And in Judaism we have a wonderful “first thing in the morning” blessing of giving thanks every day… giving thanks that we woke up and can still breathe! It’s not something to be taken for granted at all … and it is easy for me to be thankful for the simple things in my life, the things that I might not pay attention to because they have always been here, such as air to breathe, water to drink, enough food to eat, clothes to wear, a roof over my head, warm clothes and a heated home in the cold season, a loving family…really I don’t actually need anything more than that, and I have so much more.

As a parent, I spent lots of years trying to teach my now young-adult children to have the perspective to be able to recognize the blessings in their own lives, to recognize that “there but for fortune” (to coin an old Phil Ochs song) their lives could be far less comfortable, and though perhaps their circumstances are less than Hollywood fantasy movie-ish, they have so much to be thankful for. Both have definitely grown to understand that, but…my youngest struggles on a daily basis to maneuver the world with autism, Sensory Processing Disorder, anxiety and severe learning challenges.

While he definitely has much to be thankful for, and certainly “there but for fortune” he would not be where he is today, it is also very true that the world he walks through is not at all the same world that I walk through. He often says to me, “You have no idea what it is like to be me.” This sentence became the title of a song that I wrote in an attempt to explain Sensory Processing Disorder to teachers and community members who do not understand the seemingly pointless melt-downs that happen in public for so many children and young adults these days.

Having a son with autism has taught me compassion on a very deep level. I do think that as a young adult I suffered from “ableist” arrogance: I was very capable academically, I could play music and sing, I could run and do athletics, I could speak and hold my own in intellectual small talk and crowd banter, I could walk through the streets of Jerusalem (my home in my twenties) and pay attention to everything that was happening, but then turn all of that stimulation off and relax at home once I got there. None of these daily activities ever crossed my mind as something that everyone couldn’t do, as something to be thankful for. In retrospect I realize how very naïve I was of course.

My son is a kinesthetic learner, and excels at his passion, drawing and animation. He is also a talented singer. But that is where the overlap between his skills and the skills I had at his age end. He struggles to retain facts taught in academic classes. He says his brain literally hurts when he is trying to memorize details. He cannot run or coordinate his body well. He cannot follow small talk on any level; growing up in an intellectual Jewish home has made him far more insecure in this area than had he grown up in a home with people who were less talkative. But more than anything, walking through the streets of Columbus, Ohio, where we live now, is one long string of stressors and fears.

Ableism and othering go hand in hand. Having been thrust into the world of special needs by virtue of my son, I have been given the gift of needing to understand the world through eyes that do not see what I see. Ableism is a word that has been coined to refer to how much of western society is structured, under the assumption that everyone has the same physical abilities, and that if you have a “disability” you are inferior. Othering is when you choose to differentiate between those you think are similar to you, in whatever way you are choosing to define yourself, and others who are different and therefore not part of your “group.” We live in a time where othering is rampant and dangerous and very much in the spotlight. Ableism is much more subtle, especially in the case of autism and Sensory Processing Disorder, which are conditions that are often invisible to the external eye.

I know that my son suffers from Sensory Processing Disorder and I can often help him through overload. But what about the person on the street who is clearly having a hard time, perhaps a person on the street who does not like my bumper stickers or my political pins? I don’t know that person, but I think it is fair to say, just as my son says to me, that I have no idea what it is like to be them.

So, at this time of Thanksgiving, I am consciously saying thanks for the many blessings in my life, from the mundane to the more complex. I am also reminding myself never to assume what someone else should be thankful for, never to assume that I have any clue what someone else’s life challenges are. I am asking all of us, whoever we are, to practice a little understanding and perspective and tolerance as we enter the darkest time (season?)of the year…to bring the light of compassion and stop the practice of othering. Because, I/you have no idea what it is like to be them…