We could celebrate Shavuot as we just celebrated Memorial Day: with ceremonies, a day off from work and a festive meal. Our tradition urges us to celebrate Shavuot in a more spiritual manner, by recreating the experience of standing at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah.
Our rabbis comment [Exodus Rabbah, 28, 6] that although God's voice at Mount Sinai was immeasurably great, there was no echo. In the physical world, such a phenomenon does not seem possible.
Rabbi Moshe Weinberger adds a spiritual dimension.
A physical echo occurs if a sound bounces back from a barrier which sound waves can't penetrate. God's voice, as expressed through Jewish learning, must penetrate every barrier.
For all of us with disabilities, participation in our communities goes beyond our physical presence in educational and social settings. Like our non-disabled fellow Jews, we seek to absorb the spiritual content of our tradition, 3,300 years after the Sinai experience.
Creating an Environment Where Torah Knowledge can Thrive
The most beautiful garden cannot flourish unless its trees and flowers are rooted in fertile well-watered soil. Rabbi Weinberger, citing an interpretation of Rabbi Yitzchak Vorca, gives us an idea of the "soil" where Jewish knowledge flourishes:
Citing the verse "and Israel camped (Hebrew, vayichan, the singular form) before the mountain," [Exodus 19, 2] Rashi explains that they camped "as one person, with one heart." Israel was united, with no controversy or divisiveness.
Rabbi Yitzchak comments that this kind of unity is possible if "vayichan" also means that every Jew understands the "chen" -- the worth and beauty in every Jew. We must seek beauty in Jews who have very little connection to their faith, Jews who insist that everything be done their way, Jews who do not yet understand the needs and capabilities of the disabled, unattractive Jews and lonely shy Jews.
An incident recounted in the Talmud [Tractate Menachot 64B] shows how to find beauty and worth in every Jew:
At a time when the Holy Temple still functioned, the community searched in vain for barley to bring for the Omer offering. A public declaration asked anyone who knew where to find barley to come forward. A man who could not speak approached. The man put one hand on a roof and another on a tent. Mordechai (possibly from the Purim story) did not dismiss this Jew with a disability. He understood that the man was indicating the name of a specific location. Sure enough, barley was found in gigot tsrifim (literally, roofs of tents.) In a similar incident, the gestures of the same man directed the community to the wheat for the special Shavuot offering.
To find beauty in your fellow Jew, start with the assumption that he or she has something unique to contribute to the community. Don't forget to look within yourself for what you in particular can contribute.
As we celebrate Shavuot, may God help us re-create the Sinai experience by making Jewish knowledge available to all who wish to absorb it, and by finding the beauty in every single Jew, including ourselves.
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, 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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