V'etchanan, Helen Keller And How Rules Can Free Us
07/19/2013 - 07:50
Rabbi Michael Levy
Rabbi Michael Levy
Rabbi Michael Levy

Consider the life of Helen Keller.

In this week’s Torah portion, V'etchanan, Moses recalls the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai and repeats the Ten Commandments.

We associate rules, like the Ten Commandments, with restrictions and limitations. Yet rules can be liberating.

In the 1880’s, at a very young age, Helen Keller lost both her sight and her hearing. Her parents hired Annie Sullivan to teach Helen to communicate.

When Annie first met Helen, Helen acted more like an animal than a human being. She refused to be bathed, didn’t allow her hair to be combed, and grabbed food from other people’s plates.

Helen’s parents couldn’t bring themselves to discipline her, because discipline might make her cry. Annie slapped Helen’s hand when she reached for food on another person’s plate. Helen tried again, and received another slap. The confrontation lasted for hours.

Annie moved Helen into a cottage, away from her parents. Helen violently resisted obedience, knocking out Annie’s two front teeth. Annie persisted, and Helen finally understood that she could not have the privilege of going outside until she was clean and neat. Helen learned to obey.

Now, Helen had a younger sister named Mildred. The Kellers must have made Mildred follow rules, even if she cried. Perhaps Helen’s parents subscribed to the myth that life is so sad for a person with a disability that she should not be compelled to follow rules.

Annie’s methods might be considered inappropriate today. Nevertheless, Helen’s obedience was necessary before Annie could teach her to communicate in the hand-to-hand finger-spelling of the deaf-blind.

Helen went on to become a writer, a graduate of Radcliffe College and a woman who helped others worldwide. Through her, millions of people came to understand that with motivation and adequate training, any person can strive to meet goals that far exceed society’s expectations.

Indeed, rules prepare people for the real world.

People who follow rules are not special. They receive appropriate praise and criticism. Understanding rules and norms of behavior prepare them to be good employees and desirable marriage partners.

There are children whose cognitive disabilities make it harder (although not impossible) for them to follow rules. However, having a disability shouldn’t automatically exempt a person from discipline.

What if Helen’s parents had fired Annie, considering her too strict?  Helen Keller would have lived out her life in obscurity, a slave to her instincts. Adherence to rules was the first key to unlocking Helen’s amazing abilities.

The Ten Commandments challenge us to ask how many contemporary Helen Kellers are out there, waiting for the key to unlock their potential? It might be painful at first to grasp, but it must be offered.

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 after reading this article, to e-mail him at 



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