What the Torah can teach us about Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month this February
February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. On Feb. 4, several hundred people will gather on Capitol Hill for the 10th annual Jewish Disability Advocacy Day. Jews across the religious spectrum — Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox — will gather to create a more just and compassionate world and to advance our values, beginning with the principle that all human beings are created in the divine image. Everyone deserves to live in a society in which culture and laws enable us to embrace our full humanity.
And as we head into Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, Exodus offers some key lessons. Moses, the central figure of the Torah and the Hebrew Bible’s most important prophet, had a disability. In a recent Torah portion, Moses tells God that he’s never been a man of words: “I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” We can only conjecture about the nature and extent of Moses’ speech impediment. Rashi, the great medieval French Torah commenter, postulated that Moses had a stutter or severe lisp, which chimes with a lot that’s been written lately about well-known individuals who’ve struggled with stuttering, from presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden to hero pilot Sully Sullenberger. We do know that Moses himself felt it disqualified him from leadership.
I’ve worked my whole life to overcome a stutter. And it’s my great honor to mentor kids who have experienced the same. It’s called empathy. Look it up. https://t.co/0kd0UJr9Rs
— Joe Biden (Text Join to 30330) (@JoeBiden) December 20, 2019
The fact that the Jewish people’s paragon of leadership lived and led with a significant disability reminds us that, given the right circumstances, all of us can live up to our potential. In Moses’s case, he received public speaking assistance from his brother Aaron, who also offered priestly guidance, and their sister Miriam later joined them in leadership. We learn from this that disabilities can be mitigated, through one’s own efforts, with appropriate support, and through collaboration.
We also know that that in the Book of Numbers, Moses is described as the most humble person on earth. I believe that living with a disability made Moses a more empathetic and, ultimately, effective leader.
Moses’ reluctance also highlights how disabilities come in all forms, seen and unseen, and challenge people of every age and status. One of the most powerful teachings I ever heard was the observation that any of us could become disabled at any time; we’re all one accident, one illness, one aging episode away.
One midrash tells of how Moses’s speech impediment resulted from biting a hot coal as a child. His became a permanent disability. Anyone who has been injured — forced to use crutches, for example — knows that the world can suddenly look very different. Every routine swinging door or stairway or door can suddenly become a perilous, if only temporary, obstacle.
With Moses as our inspiration, we will focus our advocacy on two bills this Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. Currently, millions of Americans with disabilities can plan for the future with a measure of financial security through Achieving a Better Life Experience — or ABLE — accounts. These tax-free accounts enable people with disabilities and their families to establish tax-advantaged savings and investments plans and set aside money for disability-related expenses. There is a problem, though: One must be diagnosed with a disability before turning 26 in order to obtain an ABLE Account. The proposed ABLE Age Adjustment Act would raise the age cutoff to 46, ensuring that more than six million Americans can gain greater financial stability and live life to the fullest.
The other bill addresses a hardship that many people with disabilities face when they require short-term hospitalization. Staying in the hospital is never easy, but these stays are especially harmful and traumatic for people with disabilities due to their complex and unique needs. The Isaiah Baker and Margie Harris-Austin Act would allow care providers to sustain continuity of care even when their clients are hospitalized, preventing disruption and trauma for individuals with disabilities and improving health outcomes. A version of the bill has been introduced in the Senate, called the Ensuring Access to Direct Support Professionals Act.
I urge you to call your representative and senators to ask for their support of both bills. We’ll be pushing for them during the 10th annual Jewish Disabilities Advocacy Day.
Creating a world that goes beyond inclusion, that embraces people in their unique differences, is work for us all. We have come a long way in the past few decades: our laws, our schools and our Jewish communities are much more reflective of our highest values.
Yet, we have so far to go, particularly in our synagogues and Jewish communities. For every family that finds full inclusion in Jewish space, there’s another that stays home because one member doesn’t feel comfortable, or fully accepted. Our values and our Torah require that we do better.
What happened to Moses’ speech impediment? We are never told explicitly. But Deuteronomy, the Torah’s final book, is comprised of Moses’s extended speech to the Israelites, who are about to enter the land of Israel. By this point, both Aaron and Miriam have died.
What can his ultimate eloquence teach us? Did he rely on other aides who are not named in the Torah? We can only imagine his path toward realizing his full potential, but we have many indications that Moses had the right kind of support to reach his. His example compels us to ensure the same for all.
Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D., is president of Reconstructing Judaism. She will deliver the opening d’var Torah for Jewish Disability Advocacy Day on Feb. 4 in Washington, D.C.