Enabling Pessah

All of us have some type of challenge. Our test is whether we include those with special needs.

disabled child 88 (photo credit: Alyn)
disabled child 88
(photo credit: Alyn)
Years ago there was a controversy in my neighborhood - the Riverdale section of the Bronx in New York City - about establishing a group home for the mentally challenged. An evening was set aside by the Community Board to debate the issue. I'll never forget arriving to speak on behalf of the group home, only to find many of my congregants in the opposition. While people are sensitive to those with special needs, very few want to truly engage with them. Truth be told, had the meeting been held years earlier - before I had contact with the mentally and physically challenged - I would have been with the opposition. Pessah, I would argue, underscores our responsibility not only to help, but to embrace the handicapped. The teaching emerges from an analysis of the word "Pessah" itself. Recall that an angel passes over Jewish homes as he slays the Egyptian first born males. "And I will pass over you, and the plague shall not be upon you." (Exodus 12:13) There have been attempts to understand the term Pessah in a vacuum, that is, lifting the word from its context and analyzing it on its face value. For example, the kabalistic tradition teaches us that Pessah is a compound of two words - peh sach - the mouth that speaks. The teaching is clear: As slaves we cannot speak. As free persons we can talk freely. LET ME offer an alternative suggestion: "Pessah" may be vocalized pi-se-ach. Here the letters are the same, but the vowels are different. Piseach means lame or handicapped. Through the lens of this interpretation, the message is simple. Built into the freedom of the people of Israel is the recognition that the piseach - the physically and mentally challenged - must be included. The irony is that if one wants to fly in the spirit of Pessah, one must remember the piseach, the disabled. Indeed, bearing in mind that the holiday is called Pessah, the disabled should actually lead the way. There is little doubt that the term piseach, refers not only to the physically challenged, but to the spiritually, mentally, emotionally or psychologically challenged as well. Bottom line: All of us have some type of challenge and the test of a community is whether it includes or excludes the piseach. THE BOOK of Samuel discusses David's entry into Jerusalem, as king of a united Israel. The city was then under the control of the Yevusim who - certain they would overpower him - send a message to David saying what amounts to: Even if our city was only protected by the lame and blind, you, David, will not enter, as you'll be unable to defeat them. (Samuel II, 5-6) Let me offer an alternative suggestion for that verse which echoes our message: The lame and blind were in David's camp. As David enters the city, the Yevusim declare, you can only enter if you rid yourself of the physically challenged, as well as those who are blind, in the metaphysical sense, that is, those who are mentally challenged. The Yevusim's concept of community was that the city was only meant for the physically strong and mentally whole. David's reaction was "no." We will enter with our entire peoplehood. Indeed, the disabled must be in the forefront. The test of a nation, the test of a community, is not how it treats the most powerful, but how it treats the most vulnerable. And who among us is without vulnerability? THERE ARE two very different models for a synagogue. One is that of a country club. Only the elite, aristocracy, intelligentsia, and those who stand before God in perfection - only they gain admittance. For me, there is another model, that of a hospital. As a hospital is a place of healing, so, too, is a synagogue a place of renewal. We all enter with our weaknesses, and in this setting we try to repair ourselves by connecting to God, by connecting to our inner goodness, and by connecting and learning from each other. When I first encountered disabled people as a young man, they frightened me, so I shut them out. I felt uncomfortable being with them. But eventually, my empathy grew while at the same time I began to appreciate how fortunate I was. It's now been many years since I've come to this revelation. The handicapped are not to be cast aside or pitied so that we can feel good about ourselves. In many ways, the disabled have a purity, an innocence, a goodness from whom much can be learned. No wonder the great rabbinic figure the Hazon Ish rose when a disabled person entered the study hall, as he learned so much from them. Having come from the Seder table, we must now go forth with the lesson that everyone, no matter their mental, physical, emotional or spiritual limitations, is part of the larger Jewish family we are forging. The writer is founder and dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, the Open Orthodox Rabbinical School, and senior rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.