Sermon: Shemot: Not Yet Disabled

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 2 April 2012

Ten years ago when I was Rabbi at Finchley Progressive Synagogue we had a thorny problem.   We had invited Alex Cowen who was the Chairperson of the Liberal Judaism Disability Action Group to come and give a sermon at the Synagogue.   Alex was especially well qualified to hold this position for the religious movement as she herself had been a wheelchair user for more than a decade.  There was a problem.  The problem was two high steps in front of the Bimah.

Now Bimah is a Hebrew word meaning high place.  So you can’t really have a Bimah which is not a little elevated from the congregation and still call it a Bimah.  And week after week the Shabbat sermon would, just like here at Alyth be given from the Bimah.  What were we going to do to hear Alex’s sermon?  Would she come to the front of the Bimah in her wheelchair, stop turn round and give her sermon from the place of the congregation?

No, it seemed clear that we had to find a way to get Alex with dignity to the same place as anyone else giving the congregation a sermon would be.  We had to be able to give her the place on the Bimah to which anyone addressing the congregation should be entitled.   We were very lucky at FPS – within our membership was a great craftsman who made sets of Rimonim for the congregation’s Sifrei Torah and could turn his hand to pretty much anything.    Sam Freeman was willing to take on the challenge of creating the first accessibility ramp up to a Bimah in the UK – it had to blend in with the Synagogue so look like it was part of the Bimah and we found out from our local council the maximum slope and other specifications.

Within ten days Sam had built it and it was wonderful to be able to welcome Alex to give her sermon from the Bimah with the dignity to which all are entitled.   The slope was a bit more than ideal but it is still there at FPS and I am delighted that in the design for our new Bimah here at Alyth last year we specified and have built an accessibility ramp which is more or less permanent part of the Bimah so that anyone who finds the steps up difficult is most welcome to use it – notably Harold Langdon last week for his Aliyah.

When Moses hears God’s call in our Torah portion at the Burning Bush to be the human agent in “letting my people go” he initially feels that he has to refuse it.  The reason he gives is that “ I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue.”   This gives rise to the idea about Moses that he suffered from a permanent speech impediment – perhaps a pronounced stutter.

midrash fills in the gap to understand how this might have happened in a way which signals that Moses was destined to be a great leader from his earliest years.   The most well known Midrash tells that as an infant growing up in Pharaoh’s court Moses once playfully took the crown from Pharaoh’s head and put it on his own head. Pharaoh was persuaded by his anxious courtiers not to put him to death if it could be proven that Moses did not, due to his tender age, know what he was doing.  So Pharaoh put a bar of gold and a hot coal in front of the lad to see if he was mature enough to choose the gold.  The Midrsah concludes that the angel Gabriel made Moses reach for the coal burning his hand which he put to his lips to make him stutter for the rest of his life. (Shemot Rabbah 1:26)

God, when he calls Moses to be the excellent leader that he turns out to be, does not look at Moses’ disability to establish what he can and cannot do. Instead in our portion God says to Moses – “what do you have in your hand”.   The answer to this is a simple shepherd’s staff – used for herding his father in law’s sheep.  It is through what Moses is able to do that he is appointed the leader not through what he is less able to do.  Midrash then builds upon this motif of what Moses has in his hand, his abilities, to explain how he came to be the obvious leader.  He is portrayed as the shepherd who would not allow one lost sheep to be abandoned but rather found water for it to drink – hence a leader with deep empathy for everyone he is responsible for.  He is recognised as a fighter for justice who could not stand to see a cruel taskmaster beating an Israelite slave and took action with his bare hands to stop it.    Later in Torah simply by standing on the top of a mountain with his hands held in the air supported by Joshua and Aaron he will encourage the Israelites to victory over the the Amalakites in their first military encounter after leaving Egypt.  Moses’s hands are used for good – his speech disability is no bar to his success.

At the same time what is in Pharoah’s hands – what he puts his hands to is tyranny and terror – ruling a kingdom where he makes everyone else become his hands by enslaving the Israelites and forcing them to work with cruel rigour.   He too is restricted by a disability but unlike Moses, who transcends his speech difficulties to find a way to communicate, the very basis of Judaism to the Israelites, Pharoah is unable and unwilling to transcend his.

Pharoah is deeply emotionally disabled – in the words of the Torah his heart is hardened.  This is a disability common to murderous tyrants.   An obituary that I read of the recently deceased Kim Jong Il, dictator of North Korea for the past seventeen years during which he presided over the death from starvation of up to one million of his own people – said that he was “pathologically indifferent to the misery of his people.”  (Economist Dec 31 2011 p 70)  So too was Pharaoh – he was indifferent to the misery of the Egyptians when each plague struck, let alone to the misery of the Israelites whom he had consigned to slavery.

A Talmudic principle in Jewish ritual is that what matters is what you are able to do – what you have in your hand and not what you might be disabled from.   A passage in Pesachim (116b) asks whether Rav Joseph and Rav Sheshet, two Rabbinic authorities who were blind, could lead a Seder since during the Haggadah there are places where the leader is meant to point at the Seder Plate and say “because of this our ancestors were released from slavery”.  The answer is that they can and they did lead Sederim with aid of others to enable them if needed.

The place where disability did exclude was the Temple where a priest was meant to be as perfect in body as a sacrificial animal was required to be.  In the gorier episodes of Jewish history there are reports of the Hasmonean powers removing the ears of candidates for the High Priesthood whom they did not want in order that they were disqualified from the post (Simon Montefiore, Jerusalem).  That Temple requirement for body perfection does not apply to the Synagogue or to today’s Jewish life.

Francesca Martinez, a terrific comedienne who lives with cerebral palsy, says that we should get rid of the labels of able bodied and disabled because they imply a permanent state of affairs which stops us from participating in life.   Rather every one of us should consider ourselves to be not-yet disabled.  She says, and it’s obvious when you think about it, that whatever we are able to do now without obstacle  will one day in our lives be that much more of a challenge.  Every one of us who can today bound up a staircase with ease will one day need those stairs to be smoothed out so that we can haltingly ascend.  Every one of us who can today speak with a strong and clear voice will one day need help to express ourselves as our voice weakens and our clarity is lost.  Every one of us who can hear multiple conversations in a room and yet also make out the individual will one day need people to speak clearly facing us so that our diminished hearing can be used to its best ability.  And every one of us, once our bodies are not able to do everything with ease that they once could, will still have all of our experience, our care and our wisdom to offer to the people around us.  We will still have plenty left in our hand to give.

Our Synagogue, our workplaces, our homes, everywhere that people use to gather need to be designed to enable all of us – the not yet disabled and the already disabled to give what we can of ourselves.  The accessibility ramp to our Bimah is utterly necessary, as is our loop system and would that it were better, the tables and chairs now at every Kiddushso that people can sit who wish to must remain and I am sure that there is more that we could do to empower all of us to participate.

God knew that Moses could transcend his speech disability to bring all of his other qualities to lead the Jewish people and leave behind a great name forever.   What talents and abilities are we preventing from building our lives because we look at the disability and not the person’s boundless potential?  May we imitate God by considering what is in our hands, in our power to do and to be – and not discount people because of what their bodies prevent them from doing with ease.