A conservative, egalitarian synagogue

Torah: A Guidebook for Inclusion

A D'var Torah prepared and delivered by Michelle Gavens
April 25, 2015
Temple Israel Center, White Plains, New York


Professor Jonathan Sarna of Brandies University once began a Shabbat D'var Torah explaining that the 2 primary mitzvot for Shabbat are Torah Study and Rest.  He continues, in the next few minutes, everybody will complete one of the two mitzvot.  While this is charming, Sarna has forgotten a group.  There are those who, for whatever reason, are not interested in Torah study right now, nor are they particularly sleepy.

Since my topic today is Inclusion, I want to not leave anyone out.  Let’s be clear, these groupings are not mutually exclusive.  Some of you may partake in all three.  So during some Torah study, I offer this third group something to else think about.  My promise is that I will get back to you before I am done.  Your promise is that you will not discuss it with the people around you.  It is not that all that chatter would distract this speaker, it’s that we don’t want to disturb the sleepers.

So do we have a deal?  Here’s your topic:  Think of 2 kosher foods come from non-kosher animals.

Back to little Torah study.  The Torah is many things:

  • etz chaim, a Tree of Life
  • a chronicle of our origins
  • possibly, a primer on dysfunctional families

My goal today is that we will add another dimension to our view of Torah.

Torah:  A Guidebook for Inclusion

So what is inclusion?  In this month’s Temple Newsletter Hadashot, Michelle Steinhart quotes her MATAN colleague Lisa Friedman who provides a wonderful Inclusion definition:

"Inclusion is not a program.  And inclusion is not something that we do for people with disabilities.  Rather, inclusion is a mindset, an attitude, a way of thinking that opens doors to opportunities for meaningful engagement, contribution and belonging."

Inclusion is a mindset.  Inclusion means always thinking about who might be feeling “on the outside” and bringing them to “the inside” for meaningful engagement, contribution and belonging.  I believe this definition is consistent with the Torah’s direct and indirect inclusion messages.

A favorite Torah verse used to demonstrate inclusion is from the creation story: Btzelem Elohim, that we are all created in the image of God.  Also in this month’s Hadashot …. (Did I mention how valuable Hadashot is in D'var Torah preparations?  My three best friends while preparing this d'var Torah have been: Rabbi Google, Rabbi Wikipedia and Hadashot!)

TIC’s President Bruce Wexler wrote beautifully:

"In Genesis chapter 1:26-27, God said “let us make man in our image, after our likeness … And God created man in His image, in the image of God.”  If we are all created in God’s image, then we each have an obligation to treat one another with respect and dignity.  There is no better way to satisfy that obligation than to create an inclusive community – one in which each and every person can fully participate and share in all the incredible gifts that your community has to give."

Could not have said it better.  Thank you Bruce.

Next Shabbat, our Torah portion contains another frequently quoted verse on inclusion.  From Parsha Kedoshim:

You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind (Leviticus 19:14)

That’s pretty direct.  To use the technical terms my daughter used to interpret this verse:  don’t be a meanie!

Sometimes we need direct statements, clear reminders like these on how to behave.  Sometimes Torah messages are hidden.  Like many challenges – the harder the search, the sweeter the reward.

Jesse Saperstein, himself diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, is a motivational speaker, autism activist and author of 2 insightful books:  Atypical:  Life with Asperger’s in 20 1/3 Chapters and Getting A Life With Asperger’s:  Lessons Learns on the Bumpy Road to Adulthood.  In his presentations, Saperstein proposes that the word disability be written:

Lower case:  d-i-s

All upper case:  A-B-I-L-I-T-Y

Additionally, he proposes that the word disability should be spoken: (quietly) dis (loudly) ABILITY.  With his grammatical changes, we are forced to see the ABILITY in people not just the “dis.”  All too often we get this mixed up.

Itty bitty “dis,” great big ABILITY - This is the message of inclusion in the Torah.  The Torah provides examples of people’s foibles, but keeps focus on a person’s abilities.

For example, with all the fertility problems of our ancestors, it is amazing that Jews ever reproduced enough to become a sustainable people.  Who was one of the first really fertile women?  Leah.  Yes Leah who is described as the one with “weak eyes” (Gen 29:17).  There is all sort of midrash about Leah to explain the term “weak eyes.”  Did she have poor vision?  A negative self-image?  Too much crying?  Whatever the anomaly about Leah’s eyes, it is from Leah that comes the line of Judah, leading to King David, and please one day, the messiah.  And, through her son Levi, comes Aaron, Moses and all the Kohanim.  Leah’s eyes did not interfere with her important role in our people’s lineage.

Another example is Jacob.  Among the watershed moments in Jacob’s life, was his wrestling match at Peniel just prior to his reunion with Esau.  After the wrestling, Jacob was left with an injury to his hip.  The Torah is very specific – Jacob was left with a limp (Genesis 32:32).  It is unclear how long Jacob limped – but limp he did. It might have been a short-term injury or a life-long challenge.  We don’t know.  What we do know, is that after the wrestling match, Jacob’s name is changed to Israel – “the one who wrestles with God.”  We are known as the Children of Israel, Bnai Israel.  Last word of the Torah – Israel.  Land that we dream of – Israel.  All from when Jacob “won” his wrestling match - when Jacob became disABLED.

Moses, our greatest leader, was a man with many abilities, and numerous challenges.  We know he had some sort of speech impediment.  Using modern terminology, he likely had anger management and impulse control issues.  In various situations, we see Moses:  hit rocks, throw down the tablets containing the 10 Commandments, and kill an Egyptian taskmaster.  After receiving the 10 Commandments the second time, the Torah describes how his face became radiant and the people feared approaching him.  Imagine, Moses had a physical characteristic that caused people to fear him.  It was uncomfortable to look at Moses.  So much so, the Torah explains that at times Moses would wear a mask or veil to conceal his radiance.  Despite these flaws, Moses was our greatest prophet.  Our leader for 40 years.

One of my favorite Moses Torah stories is at the burning bush.  God has just told Moses that he has heard the cries of his people in Egypt.  That He will free the Israelites and Moses will lead the people.  Moses responds:  you got the wrong guy!  There is some back and forth between God and Moses.  In summary, God says you’re it.  Moses says, you got the wrong guy!  Finally in desperation Moses pleads:

I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now … I am slow of speech and slow of tongue. (Exodus 4:10)

God responds in Exodus chapter 4 verse 11: 

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.

God’s message is clear:  I made you just the way you are.  No excuses.  Deficits are not excuses.  We must look at ourselves just as we want others look at us:  itty bitty “dis,” great big “ABILITY.”  Most of all, God reminds Moses that he is not alone.  God said, “I will be with you.”  We know how the rest of this story unfolds – Moses isn’t perfect, but he gets the job done.

We know that the Torah is written with a minimum of words.  So when something is repeated, it is worth taking note.  Frequency in the Torah is a red flag to pay attention.  The commandment, remember that you were a stranger in a strange land, is such a red flag.

The Talmud teaches in Baba Metzia 59b:

Rabbi Eliezer the great used to say: Why does the Torah warn in thirty six places - and some say, in forty six places - concerning the stranger?  Because humanity tends towards evil.  Why is it written 'Do not wrong a stranger and do not oppress him for you were strangers in the land of Egypt'?  It is taught: Rabbi Natan used to say:  Do not accuse your neighbor of the blemish that is in you.

What is this teaching us?  On the surface it appears as though welcoming the stranger is something we do for the stranger.  A benevolent deed for the sole benefit of the stranger, the one who feels as an outsider.  Rabbis Eliezer and Natan explain that actually, caring for the outsider, for the stranger, for the one who is different, is something we do for OURselves.  We avert our own evil inclinations through acts of kindness and non-exclusionary behavior.

So for yourself, at kiddush today, next week and the week after, introduce yourself to someone.  Maybe someone you have seen for years, but do not know their name.  Maybe there is someone new here today, bonus points if you find them!  So if we want to be a part of a welcoming community, we need to act like one.  We do this well, and we can do it better.  Not just one or two people, but each of us must complete this mitzvah.  Not for the stranger, but for our own wellbeing.

Another way the Torah reminds us of the importance of all people in a community is during a census.  At the beginning of Parsha Ki Tisa God commands that a census be taken by each person contributing half a shekel.  The Torah specifies:  no more, no less, everyone gives half a shekel.  Not only does this collect funds for the tabernacle, it provides two important lessons.  All people are equal.  And, that each of us is only half, as in half a shekel.  We need to be joined with other people to be whole.

This message has practical applications today.  Let’s dream of your Fantasy Minyan.  It’s just like fantasy basketball or football teams.  In your head, put together your dream minyan.  Might it include the ushpizin and ushpizot we welcome into our Sukkot?  Maybe some great scholars or Rabbis?  Now image you have assembled the greatest minyan – your fantasy davening team.  There is just one problem – there are only 9 people!  No minyan.  Don’t you think one of the really great, really smart people in your dream minyan should count for 2 people?  No.  The Torah is clear, no more, no less.  We count in the census equally, and we count in the minyan equally.

Sukkot provides another lesson in the value of all people in a community.  During the holiday we bring together the four species:  Myrtle, Palm, Willow and Etrog and wave them.  Among the many interpretations of these symbols, is that good taste, represents Torah knowledge and good aroma represents good deeds.  The Myrtle, hadas, has a good aroma, but no taste.  This is like a person who does good deeds, but does not study Torah.  The Palm, lulav, tastes good, but is not fragrant.  This is likened to people who study Torah but do not turn their learning into good deeds.  The Willow, aravah, has neither good taste nor is aromatic.  This is likened to people who lack both Torah study and good deeds.  The etrog both tastes good and has a magnificent aroma.  This represents someone who is both learned and does good deeds.

Each component of the lulav symbolizes a different type of Jew.  Note, no one component can fulfill the holiday mitzvah alone.  We must hold them all together – as in hold all the different types of Jews together, to complete the mitzvah of lulav and etrog.  This is like the half shekel collected in the census.  We are all just parts, until we join together to be whole.

Speaking of bringing everyone together, as promised, let’s reconnect with the folks thinking about 2 kosher foods that come from non-kosher animals.  Before we reveal the answer, let’s take a moment to think about the irony here – kosher foods from non-kosher animals.  It’s like dis-ABILITIES:  Let’s see the good (the kosher, the ABILITY), even if it is emanates from an unusual source.

What two foods are we talking about?  Human breast milk and bee’s honey.  Milk and Honey.  Hey, that’s a phrase we’ve heard before!  Israel, the place we dream of, is described numerous times in the Torah as the Land flowing with Milk and Honey.  How ironic that we idealize the unusual, the outlier.  Once again the Torah is giving us the message to cherish differences, do not shun them.  The good can come from unexpected places, as long as we are willing to see it.

Michelle Steinhart, TIC’s amazingly talented Director of Inclusion has on her email signature a wonderful verse: 

Our Jewish community is only as strong as its ability to include and honor people with an array of diverse strengths and abilities.

Kol Hakavod to Michelle Steinhart and the members of the Inclusion Committee who work to advance this cause.  The Torah is, a Guidebook for Inclusion, providing numerous examples and lessons for all of us to work toward this common mission.

Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camping, wrote during February’s Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month:

When camp makes inclusion a priority, it creates the best possible camp community for all campers and staff.  Everyone benefits.

The same can be said for synagogues.  When congregations make inclusion a priority, it creates the best possible synagogue community.  Everyone benefits.

I’d like to finish using the traditional Temple Israel Center words.  My name is Michelle Gavens and I look forward to greeting you at kiddush.  And, I really look forward to being greeted BY you at kiddush.  Shabbat Shalom.