Various communities have run disability awareness programs for a number of years. However, in 2009 the idea of creating a month in which these programs could be united into a national Jewish movement was born as February was designated Jewish Disability Awareness Month. As we celebrate our third annual Jewish Disability Awareness Month, some of you may wonder how it was that February was chosen after all. Other dates or months, had a history of being designated for Jewish disability awareness in communities throughout the country.
February was chosen because of this week’s Torah portion Mishpatim.
During a summer of 2007, I was an intern working in a caring commission, a UJA Federation of New York. I also served as a representative on the UJA Federation of New York task force on disability, and therefore was tasked with deciding on a weekend, which would be designated for disability awareness within the eight New York counties, which receive UJA Federation of New York funding.
Sitting in the office of Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses who then served as a scholar-in-residence at UJA-Federation, who, like me, is part of the Matan family, I began, with her help, to sift through the Chumash, looking for inspiration to help pick a date. When we came to Mishpatim, I knew we had a gem, we chose to pick the corresponding weekend, the first weekend, in February of 2008. The program was so successful that it was decided, long after my internship had ended, to designate February Jewish disability awareness month in the region. Two advocates for the inclusion of people with disabilities the Jewish community, Lenore Layman from the DC Metro area, and Shelly Christensen, from Minneapolis, decided to coordinate disability awareness programs throughout the country and, hearing that New York had chosen February, added their support to our choice.
You might ask, what was it about Mishpatim that inspired me?
I was struck by 22:20-22:23, 22:20 Do not taunt or oppress a Ger , for you were Gerim in Egypt.
22:21 Do not mistreat a widow or an orphan.
22:22 If you mistreat them, and they cry out to Me, I will hear their cry.
22:23 I will [then] display My anger and kill you by the sword, so that your wives will be widows, and your children, orphans.
The discussion of widows and orphans make sense within the context of the earlier discussion in the Torah portion of an “eye for an eye.”
But what should one make of the discussion of a Ger and its placement adjacent to the discussion of widows and orphans, two categories of people who are often seen as venerable. In modern Hebrew the word Ger means convert, but that could not be the Torah’s meaning here, as the children of Israel were saved, in part because we chose not to convert to the Egyptian culture during our time in Egypt. Therefore Ger is often understood in this context to mean a stranger, a person who stands out from the crowd. When God created us in his image, He could have chosen to make us all the same with the same strengths and weaknesses, the same looks and the same ideas, but he did not. By choosing to make each of us unique, he signified the importance and the power of our uniqueness. Our difference, that which makes us strange to others, is precisely what allows us to see the world from alternative perspectives and find solutions to challenging situation, and growing in the process. As Rabbi Abraham Twerski, a noted Rabbi and psychiatrist explains in his book Angel’s don’t leave footprints, it is because of our challenges, faults and our individuality that people are able to have an impact on the world.
While our differences that which makes each one of us what someone else may call strange, can be a person’s biggest asset, it is also vulnerability as articulated in Mishpatim. When faced with a stranger, a person who is different, whatever the cause of that difference we should not punish them for that difference but embrace them as we would want to be embraced. So the next time you come across someone who, looks talks, moves or learns in a strange way, try not to move to the other side of the hallway, sidewalk or room, our differences are not contagious. Get to know them and you may in fact learn something from someone with a different perspective.
Jason Lieberman serves as a board member and treasurer of Matan. Diagnosed with both cerebral palsy spastic diplegia and inattentive adhd, jason is a tireless advocate for the full integration of people with disabilities in all aspects of jewish life and community