Va-et-chanan: Personal Prayer, A Sanctuary With No Barriers
08/07/2014 - 13:06
Rabbi Michael Levy

I grew up attending Temple BethEl in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Worship was a group activity. We recited the liturgy together, sometimes in response to the rabbi.

Communal worship binds Jews together. Parts of the liturgy, such as the Kedusha and Kaddish, may be recited only in a minyan, a gathering of ten adult Jews.

For some of us with disabilities, praying with a community is difficult. The synagogue may be inaccessible. Individuals who process verbal and written language differently from the “average congregant” might struggle to find and maintain their place in the prayerbook, keep pace with other worshippers, and switch between Hebrew and English.

Through websites like “The New Normal,” we can help each other find innovative paths to inclusion in public worship. We can educate our clergy to make accommodations when possible.

Private Prayer: An Ancient Practice

As this week’s Torah portion “Va-et-chanan” (And I Pleaded) opens, Moses begs God to permit him to enter the Land of Israel with the people whom he has led for forty years. According to our tradition, he prays 515 times.

When his sister Miriam was punished with tsa-ra-at (often translated as leprosy, but actually a spiritual as well as a physical affliction,) Moses said “God, please, please heal her.” It wasn’t an elegant or poetic recitation, but God does not require fancy words.

In his Psalms, King David has a prayer for every mood: “The Lord is my light and my help, whom should I fear? “ [27, 1] ; "My eyes are wasted by vexation, my substance and body too” [31, 10]; “The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” [118, 22]; “I am more eager for God than watchmen for the morning, watchmen for the morning” [130, 6]; “I do not aspire to great things, or to what is beyond me [131, 1.]

Private Prayer is Completely Accessible

In personal prayer, the Sanctuary is in one’s heart. There’s  no need for ramps, interpreters, or Braille. No rule requires the worshipper to sit still or remain silent. One can pray briefly, at length, and at any time, without even speaking. Prayers may focus on the pray-er’s needs, family concerns or on the suffering of innocents worldwide. In the absence of barriers, I am free, in my private prayer, to sincerely consider who I can be and what I can strive to accomplish.

Seeking Guidance

As one explores the realm of personal prayer, it is advisable to consult a rabbi, educator or scholar. What can our extensive literature teach us about liturgy? How does one react if, as in Moses’s case, a personal petition is not granted?

Many of us will be turning to God during the upcoming High Holiday season. It is time to approach the sanctuary with no barriers, but from our own hearts, from which each of us, in his/her unique way, can seek God.

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

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