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Embracing Rare Abilities

 

February is Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance & Inclusion Month, celebrating a cause that is near and dear to my heart.

As a parent of a child with life-threatening food allergies, I recognize that what we sometimes deem a “special need” may simply be a manifestation of whatever particular thing or issue an individual may have that distinguishes him/her from others. Sometimes perceived as developmental, learning or physical disabilities, I subscribe to the concept that we each have some challenge or issue – sometimes more obvious but often more subtle and difficult to recognize.

What is clearly evident is that each individual has something valuable to contribute to our community. Sometimes the very thing that challenges us may be what becomes the most impactful characteristic of our contribution.

We can observe how this concept is linked to the current Torah story about one of the most celebrated leaders in our history: Moses, often regarded as the greatest prophet and leader of the Jewish people.

When we review Moses’s dramatic story, it is not surprising that he is an important figure. But is he truly what we imagine a successful leader to be? We often envision heroic leadership represented by people stepping up in the face of adversity. Despite following his conscience and interceding when an Egyptian is torturing a Jewish slave, Moses is generally reluctant to take on leadership responsibility and often argues that he is unsuitable for the monumental task of leading the Jewish people out of Egypt, through the desert, to the revelation at Mount Sinai and ultimately to the promised land of Israel. What would contribute to this apprehension and apparent hesitance?

While Hollywood may often portray Moses as charismatic and eloquent, the Torah tells us that Moses was reluctant to lead due to his apparent speech impediment (Exodus 4:10 “I am slow of speech and slow of tongue”). G-d responds by reassuring Moses that he will be accompanied by his brother, Aaron who will speak on his behalf, an affirmation of the important leadership quality associated with teamwork and recognizing when one could benefit from assistance.

While there is no direct story in the Torah text conveying the source of the disability, there are midrashim (parables) that relate a fascinating explanation. One version explains that Pharaoh was not certain he wanted to adopt what was likely a Jewish child when they discovered Moses in the Nile. His advisors suggested testing the baby to see if he would ever pose a threat. Baby Moses was offered two bowls, one with hot coals and one with shiny gold pieces. Had Moses selected the gold, it would indicate a threat to the throne. The story relates that as Moses was reaching to select the shiny gold pieces, an angel guided his hand to the coals and upon grabbing the hot coals, he quickly put his hand into his mouth, consequently burning his tongue and palate.

Moses went on to be one of our greatest leaders. But he’s not the only Biblical or historical leader who likely had a disability of some type. Isaac was blind at an early age, and Jacob limped as a result of his wrestle with an angel. Furthermore, Winston Churchill suffered from a speech impediment and both Alexander the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte are believed to have had epilepsy. George Washington is suspected to have been dyslexic. Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, FDR and many other significant leaders also would have been recognized as having significant special needs. We can learn many things from these examples and others throughout history.

One key idea that I find compelling is that people should not be judged based on their real or perceived disabilities, nor should they be underestimated in their capacity to lead or contribute in a meaningful way. Another important ideal to remember is that we are not alone in facing various challenges. We should both realize the importance of coalitions and friendships as well as respect the importance of teamwork and cooperation. Despite whatever challenge one faces, we should remember to give each other the benefit of the doubt, provide support when needed and respect the fact that each of us has something worthwhile to contribute to our community. We all have “stuff,” whether apparent or not, and it is our capacity to empower and support others that truly elevates us and the work we do.

Reflecting on the characteristics of great leadership, we are reminded not to assess others based on who we think they should be and instead seek to understand and appreciate each individual for his/her unique voice, contribution and leadership. Throughout this month and always, may we celebrate our differences just as we enjoy acknowledging our many similarities despite our varied backgrounds and experiences.

B’Shalom,

Behzad Dayanim
Chief Learning Officer
February 21, 2020

PS – Fortunately, our Jewish community consistently makes it a priority to provide inclusive experiences that welcome and embrace all abilities. At Federation’s Friedman Commission for Jewish Education (CJE), we offer Yad Hebrew School for Children with Differing Abilities, professional development for Jewish educators to create inclusive classrooms, a special needs coordinator who helps to create welcoming programs throughout the community, and more. If you’re interested in benefiting from our programs or being involved, please contact us at 561.640.0700.

Read Behzad’s previous blog posts here.