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A Special D’var Torah

As I think about My Grandfather’s Yartzeit this Shabbos, I realize that last Month we celebrated Shabbat Nachamu. Following Tisha B’Av and the destructions it commemorates, the Haftara from Isaiah shows the Prophet being told to comfort God’s People in the face of their despair. Following a national catastrophe despair is obvious; but what of the quiet despair that often besets individuals who find themselves unjustly shunned and shut out of the world simply because they are different in physical, emotional, or mental capabilities. Do we not bear a burden to bring them comfort by assisting them to integrate into society as respected people?

Recently I have been pondering the question, “Why must we educate students with Learning Differences or Disabilities?” It would be much easier to say; “Yankel has learning Differences, let’s leave him alone,” and that would be the end of that.

However, our texts tell us that this mode of thought is unacceptable. Torah teaches that, “You shall not insult the deaf nor place a stumbling block before the blind; you shall revere your G-d — I am Adonai,” (Lev. 19:14).

Right here it is written; G-d commands our reverence, our respect. To respect G-d is to respect all created in the Divine image, including those with differences and special needs, be they strangers, friends, or our students. In respecting G-d we need do what G-d commands. If that means removing all obstacles found in the path of the blind then so we must. As Amy Weiss points out in a D’var Torah she did on Emor for the Union for Reform Judaism in Torat Hayim, “…by ignoring their needs [those of the disabled], we do inadvertently place a stumbling block before them.” My colleagues, removing stumbling blocks is not merely an option; it is a requirement. We must work diligently to help each and every one of our students.

In Leviticus we are charged,”K’doshimtih’yu, ki kadosh ani Adonai Eloheichem; you will be kadosh because I, Adonai your God, am kadosh.” Kuf- Daled –Shin can carry a meaning of maximizing potential, i.e. to be the very best we can be. In a D’var Torah he wrote on Vayikra, Rabbi Norman Koch said, ”K’dushah, ‘holiness,’ might be seen as a maximizing of potential: making the best of self, moment, or situation…this verse beckons us, beings created in the image of the Divine, to maximize our potential, as God, our template, is the maximum of all potential.” If we are not helping our students to work to their full potential then we are not working to ours. Yes, all students have potential, despite the obstacles they may encounter. Most of you are unaware that at the age of five I was unable to read, write, walk properly, or talk in an intelligible fashion. Had my parents not acted with the fullness of their strengths and talents I would not be standing before you working in fulfillment of my potential. They, and so many others, helped me understand and access the potential I have to complete the doctoral degree I am currently pursuing.

In Judaism numbering is very important. We number ten for a Minyan; we number thirteen years to Bar or Bat Mitzvah; we number six days in a week leading up to Shabbos. When we fail to think about working with a student just because they have learning differences we send that child a message that they aren’t among our number. How as Jews can we tell any child that she doesn’t count? Who are we to tell a child that he doesn’t belong and therefore cannot be numbered among us?

Judaism also underscores the idea of saving a life. “Save a life and you have saved the whole world; destroy a life and you have destroyed the whole world. Well, if you ignore the student with learning differences in your classroom you are, in a way, destroying that child’s life, hence destroying the world. Each of our students can succeed if given the right help. How can we ignore the student who cannot achieve the desired outcome without modifications? It is our duty to provide the accommodations necessary.

Sadly, there are places in Torah where those with disabilities are excluded. One example of this is in the Priesthood, where those with disabilities weren’t allowed to serve. Unfortunately, we often exclude those who are different. We exclude some from Shul when we fail to provide adequate access to the building; or, if they are able to enter, we fail when, absent a ramp, they are unable to ascend the bima for an aliyah. In my experience, the majority of people who are excluded by our lack of awareness or our lack of attention to the details of their need won’t say anything. Not wanting to burden others, or being shy, or frustrated by prior experience, or fear of rejection will often deter self-advocacy. What we should all realize is that they shouldn’t have to speak up; it is up to us to be proactively inclusive. We need remember and internalize the teachings of Torah as an impetus to action and thus can we honor our G-d. It is up to us, thus should we endeavor to not insult the deaf nor should we inadvertently place a stumbling block before the blind. I pray that we enable ever-greater access and inclusion and thus fully revere our G-d.

This D’var Torah was written for CAJE August 2006 in memory of my Grandfather, Sidney P. Koch. Grandpa thank you. May your memory be a blessing to us all.

YK 8/07