Traditionally, the Jewish community commemorates the Sabbath before the holiday of Purim with a special reading that begins with the word zachor — “remember.” The passage reads, “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey after you left Egypt — how undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary and cut down all the stragglers in your rear” (Deuteronomy 25:17-18).
It is especially fitting that Shabbat Zachor falls during the month of February, which the Jewish community has designated as Jewish Disability Awareness Month. The Hebrew word in Deuteronomy that we translate as “stragglers” — ha-necheshalim — appears only once in the entirety of the Bible. To explain its meaning, the medieval commentator Ibn Ezra suggests that its Hebrew root may have a meaning similar to a more common Hebrew root that means “to be weak.” As such, he took ha-necheshalim to mean “those who did not have power to walk.” Similarly, Rashi understands it to mean “those who lack strength,” though he adds that this is “on account of their sin.”
Who were “the stragglers in your rear”? They were the slow, the weak, the enfeebled — the invalids. Perhaps in ancient times, these people were, in fact, considered invalid human beings, and so the Israelites abandoned them, leaving the stragglers on their own to struggle at the rear of the Exodus.
Though today we do not connect disability with sin, the invalidation of people with disabilities remains a modern bias. Where are the “stragglers” today? Unfortunately, our society — including many Jewish communities — continues to leave them behind.
As recently as May 2009, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 41.2 million Americans have some sort of a disability — that’s some 15% of the population. While there are no firm statistics on the percentage of Jews with disabilities, there’s no reason to believe that the proportion is very different for our community. Within our midst exist Jews who are hearing- and vision-impaired, Jews with intellectual disabilities, Jews with cognitive or psychological disabilities — Jews who need more than ramps and designated parking spaces to meet their needs.
Rabbis and synagogue presidents often tell me that they don’t have congregants with disabilities who require special accommodations. And in one troubling way, they may be correct — these Jews are often not present within our synagogues because they perceive they are not wanted there. How many of our synagogues have sign-language interpreters or Braille prayer books? How many offer service programs or congregational bulletins in large print? Only a select few synagogues provide religious school classes designed for children with special needs; even fewer have such classes for adults. Fewer still offer any programs, trips or religious services at all designed to include people with all types of disabilities.
Civil rights begin at home — in our synagogues and in our communal institutions. We must make conscious efforts to break down the physical, communicative and attitudinal barriers that separate individuals with disabilities from our community. It is time to come together to help our congregants, indeed all Americans, recognize that people with disabilities are people first — people with unlimited potential, not to be defined by their disabilities.
Hasidic master the Yehudi HaKadosh said, “Good intentions alone not accompanied by action are without value. The main thing is the action, as this is what makes the intention so profound.” This February, the second annual Jewish Disability Awareness Month, let the Jewish community come together to begin a fully committed and educated process of welcoming Jews with disabilities.
Rabbi Lynne Landsberg is the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s senior adviser on disability issues and chair of the Committee on Disability Awareness and Inclusion of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.