In 1969, when I was hiking with a United Synagogue Youth group through Israel’s Negev desert, I heard the word "afik," used in casual conversation.
“See how the rock changes color on those walls?” the guide asked. Since I couldn’t see the walls, my friend explained that the walls indeed changed color ten feet above the ground.
“That’s how high the afik rose last January,” the guide continued, referring to the onrushing flood which fills a wadi after a heavy rain.
Afik. A visit to Israel, whose beauty is described in this week's Torah portion, is an inspiring way to experience our tradition.
“Turn back our captivity, Lord, like the afikim in the Negev.” This verse appears in Shir Hama’alot, of Psalm 126, which introduces the Blessings after a Meal on Shabbat and holidays. Standing in the dry wadi, I understood the Psalmist’s plea for a sudden, swift and complete end to the subjugation of the Jewish People.
On a Friday during morning prayers, we recited Psalm 93: “More than thundering vast waters, mightier than the breakers of the sea, the Lord is mighty in the high firmament.” A few hours later, we visited Rosh Hanikra, a seaside cliff near Haifa. The mighty breakers struck the rocks with such force that we had to raise our voices to be heard. In my mind, the breakers and the Psalm roared in unison.
“As mountains surround Jerusalem, so God surrounds His people.”
You strongly connect with those words in Psalm 125 when you ascend the mountainous terrain on your way to the Holy City.
I believe that there is a mystical bond between our People and the physical land of Israel, and with thorough advanced planning, Jews with a variety of disabilities can make it happen Preparations might include studying about Israel before the trip, planning tours that minimize architectural barriers, selecting lodgings that are wheelchair accessible, making sure that an interpreter is available, providing tour-related materials in accessible formats, accommodating those who need special diets or must eat at particular times, providing attendant care and scheduling daily rest periods.
More than 2,500 years ago, God addressed those who had been exiled from Israel, stressing what today we call inclusion:
“Behold, I will bring them from the land of the north; I will gather them in from the far corners of the earth. Among them (will be) the blind and the lame, so too she who is pregnant or giving birth.”
Today, advances in medicine, in technology and not least in human understanding enable many with disabilities to join the thousands who visit Israel each year. May we all have the opportunity to experience firsthand Israel’s marvelous agriculture and geography.
A native of Bradley Beach, New Jersey, Rabbi Michael Levy attributes his achievements to God’s beneficence and to his courageous parents. His parents supported him as he explored his small home town, visited Israel and later studied at Hebrew University, journeyed towards more observant Judaism, received rabbinic ordination, obtained a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University and lectured on Torah- and disability-related topics.
As a founding member of Yad Hachazakah — the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center (www.yadempowers.org), Rabbi Levy strives to make the Jewish experience and Jewish texts accessible to Jews with disabilities. In lectures at Jewish camps, synagogues and educational institutions, he cites Nachshon, who according to tradition boldly took the plunge into the Red Sea even before it miraculously parted. Rabbi Levy elaborates, “We who have disabilities should be Nachshons --boldly taking the plunge into the Jewish experience, supported by laws and lore that mandate our participation.” Rabbi Levy is currently director of Travel Training at MTA New York City Transit. He is an active member of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, NY. He invites anyone who has disability-related questions to e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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