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February 23, 2018 Parashat Tetzaveh

02/16/2018 02:19:18 PM


Rabbi Elisa F. Koppel

In the synagogue where I worked in NJ, we would take our 8th and 9th graders each year on a weekend retreat with several other synagogues in the area.

I will never forget the look on the face of the educator I worked with, when she came back to our table after getting more food at Shabbat lunch during one of those weekends.  Lisa, the educator I worked with, told us of the following exchange:

As she stood in line alongside Grace, a student from our synagogue who happens to be blind.  A young man from another synagogue stood in front of them and offered to let them go ahead of him because he “certainly didn’t need to get to the food first.”  (This was a young man who was a little bit overweight and who is often misunderstood and judged based on his appearance, rather than the quality of his character.)  Grace looked confused, and leaned in to Lisa to say that she didn’t understand what he meant.  Lisa explained to her that the young man had just made a self-deprecating remark about himself in reference to his weight. Her response was “Oh,” and while it was clear that this made her feel bad, she just had no real frame of reference for what he was saying.  And that’s when it dawned on him.  Lisa watched his face light up, his whole demeanor change and he addressed his next comment to Grace directly.  “Wow,” he said to her, “You are so lucky! You never have to judge people on their appearances!” 

This young man gave Grace—and Lisa—and all of us who heard the story, an amazing gift—by recognizing and defining Grace’s own gift—a gift that comes as a result of something that most would perceive as a deficit.  It is so easy to look at a person who has a disability and miss the person, miss their gifts, and only see the disability. 

Rabbi Lynn Landsberg, after suffering a traumatic brain injury that physically and mentally impaired her, talks about going into stores using a wheelchair, where she had shopped regularly before her accident.  Salespeople who had helped her spend money for years would suddenly ignore her.  She quips when talking about this, “What, because I can’t walk, I can no longer use a credit card?”  

Sometimes, we overlook the individual and often, we miss the gifts—those gifts that are tangible, and those that are not.  But indeed, it is sometimes exactly as a result of what we usually call a disability, that people are able to have, and to give, a unique gift. I’m reminded of 2 examples of gifts I was given:

When I was a rabbi in Port Washington, NY, our synagogue was located around the corner from the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults.  Over the course of my time there, a young woman came to live and learn at the center who was Jewish and wanted to come to services.  

I found a generous donor who helped to fund this, paying for the aid who accompanied her and transportation.  And each Saturday morning, she’d come to services.  Following along in a braille edition of the prayer book, experiencing the prayers, and communicating through her aid with touch based sign language.  She became a regular and I always enjoyed greeting her and welcoming her.  

After a month or so of her coming each week to temple, her aide told me that she had created a sign for me, which is something that people who communicate through sign language do for significant people in their lives—she used the sign for rabbi, using a K instead of an R.  I will always remember and treasure the moment I received that gift.

And then, back to the synagogue in NJ, when I received another gift, on the 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah (this is a synagogue where they do 2 days of services for Rosh Hashanah).  I was not feeling well that day.  A bit stressed about the sermon I was about to deliver, and I was also coming down with something.  I had slept horribly the night before. Between not feeling well and being nervous, I was distracted enough that I forgot to put on a kippah, a yarmulke, that morning.  And I didn’t realize it until about half way through the service, when I went to scratch my head.  I probably had a look of surprise on my face at this realization, but I went on.  

A few minutes later, I noticed Wayne, a teenager with autism, who frequently and enthusiastically attended services at our synagogue, as well as being an active participant in our youth group and our NFTY region and camper at the Reform Movement's Kutz Camp;  Wayne was, at that moment, walking up to the bimah.  When he had seen my moment of distress, he immediately noticed what was off, got up, walked out of the sanctuary to the bin where we kept extra kippot, grabbed a kippah, and brought it to me.  A pure act of kindness and concern.  Truly a gift.

We are told in the Torah that the Mishkan, the Tabernacle—the portable sanctuary that the Israelites carried with them through the wilderness—the first sacred space constructed—was made out of gifts brought by the community.  We are in the midst of several weeks of Torah portions that talk about this idea—as well as the clothing the priests wore, and the creation of ritual items that went into the Mishkan. 

In these descriptions, we are told about Betzalel, the artist who crafted this structure—a man who was singled out by God—who was filled with the spirit of God in wisdom, and understanding, and knowledge in every kind of craft.  A man, surely, of unique spirit.  And God also assigns Oholiab to work with him, and other skilled members of the community to help, as well.  

Each year, as I read these portions during February, Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, I can’t help but wonder if maybe Betzalel was someone whose gifts were often overlooked because of other aspects of his person.  The Torah doesn’t tell us much else about Betzalel—which gives us the freedom to interpret it—to create modern midrash—to write the back stories.  

And in my midrashic imagination, Betzalel is a man who is singled out by God for his unique gifts, because the community itself might not have noticed the gifts he had to offer.

And what a model that offers us.  First, he’s given an aide—someone who can help him to be successful—who can make sure he has what he needs—some extra help to negotiate that which is more challenging for him.  And other members of the community as well.  

Because the community needs to be part of this—so Betzalel has more help, so he isn’t alone, so Betzalel is truly part of that community.  And by calling him forth in front of the entire community to do this sacred work, Moses gives him a place of honor.  Recognizing his gifts publicly. 

And Betzalel is the one who gets to have the holy task of creating the holy space built so that the Divine can dwell with the people in that space.

And, indeed, it is only when we honor the gifts of all members of the community—when we put systems in place so that all members of the community are welcomed—when we have removed the stumbling blocks that are huge, as well as the ones that no one had even noticed were there—it is then that we can truly create holy community.  And receive the gifts that each member of the community has to offer.

Let us learn from this—may Betzalel be our reminder to create a community—to create a world—in which all are welcome—are embraced—not despite a disability that someone has, but because we value the gifts that only that individual can bring.  Gifts that are the essence of their spirit.  Gifts that others might ignore.  Gifts that we need, in order to create sacred space.

Thu, June 13 2024 7 Sivan 5784