Unity through inclusion: a lesson of the four species

The message of the Four Species does not conclude with the recognition and acceptance of the differences among people; in fact, this is merely its underlying presumption.

Four species in Mahaneh Yehuda (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Four species in Mahaneh Yehuda
On Sukkot there is a very unique commandment to bind together Four Species: The Etrog [citron], Lulav [palm], Hadas [myrtle], and Arava [willow]. The uniqueness of this commandment has not only merited many raised eyebrows at airports around the world, but also the commentaries of Jewish scholars throughout the ages.
In Jewish thought, each of the Four Species are representative of different human character traits based on their taste and smell, or lack thereof. The commandment, as is traditionally understood and practiced, is not only to “take” the Four Species, but to bind them into one unit. Moreover, the unity of these different species is inherently essential to the commandment’s fulfillment. As such, the message of the Four Species does not conclude with the recognition and acceptance of the differences among people; in fact, this is merely its underlying presumption.
As the Midrash explains, “And the Almighty said, ‘Tie them into one unit and each will contribute to the benefit of the other… When you do as such, in that moment I am elevated’” (Vayikra Rabba 30:12). The lesson of the Four Species lies in the commandment to bind them. We have a charge to create a social infrastructure which unites the different people in our society and enables them to benefit one another as equally contributing elements of one unified community. In creating a healthy and thriving society, it is not enough to embrace difference; we must also practice inclusion. 
I learned this lesson most profoundly from my own son Yossi. In 1977, when Yossi was 11 months old, he was injured by a faulty vaccine and became blind and deaf among other physical and cognitive disabilities.  After eight years of isolation from the world around him, Yossi learned to communicate via Hebrew finger spelling sign language in the palm of his hand. This was a life-changing breakthrough for Yossi and our whole family.
At home, Yossi was included as an equal member of the family. He developed close relationships with his siblings and received the love and acceptance to develop his abilities and contend with the challenges posed by his disabilities. How society would accept him; however, remained a looming concern for me as a parent.
Today, Yossi being 40 years old, I am astounded by the fulfilling life he leads. Yossi maintains friendships with many peers, travels, rides horses, and works at the Route 6 headquarters. Yossi's peer colleagues at Route 6 openly accept him; moreover, they value and admire him. Equally as apparent is the satisfaction he experiences from being part of the Route 6 team.  When introducing himself, his job is often the first subject he will mention.
I remember the first Shabbat after he began working at Route 6 when I escorted Yossi to his bedroom following the Friday night meal. As he got ready for bed, I noticed him fumbling with something near his waist. At first confused, it became clear to me that Yossi was transferring his work ID  from the belt loop on his pants to the elastic band of his pajamas. I understood that for Yossi going to work was much more than what he did in the morning, it was his dignity.
Twenty-eight years ago, as a result of our experience with Yossi, my wife Malki and I founded an organization called Shalva to help children with disabilities and their families. Over the years, we developed innovative therapy solutions, inclusive education frameworks, rehabilitative recreational programs, and family support services for children with disabilities from infancy to adulthood. In the coming months, Shalva will be launching its newest program: an inclusive employment training program for adults with disabilities.
Shalva has partnered with corporate bodies, designed courses in various vocational fields, and is the only disability care organization in Israel to date with authorization to provide course graduates with official certification from the Ministry of Labor. I am excited to breach this new frontier in Israel’s workforce inclusion and the opportunities it will make possible for people with disabilities and society at-large. As one unit, they will contribute as equals to benefit one another.
The commandment of the Four Species is to bind them as one unit to create a whole that is much greater than the sum of its parts. So too in our society, it is not enough to accept the differences among people, we must include them as equal contributors in our communities. May the week long message of the Four Species escort us throughout the year. 
Kalman Samuels is the founder and president of Shalva, the Israel Association for Care and Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities. Write to Kalman at Kalman@Shalva.org. Learn more about Shalva at www.shalva.org.