We in the disability community encounter standards and measures at every turn. We often hear phrases like “high functioning,” “developmental delays,” “battery of tests,” “number of paraprofessional hours required,” “attention span,” “degree of socialization,” “progress in daily living activities,” and “work readiness.” Such measurements are often helpful and sometimes crucial, but it isn’t necessary to use them to compare one human being to another.
The pressure to appear as competent as everybody else is so intense that we may “distort reality” to make people with disabilities feel that they “measure up.” One hears stories of such children hitting home runs, because the opposing team has been instructed to bobble their weakly hit ball when it could easily have been caught.
I find myself wondering: Will “arranged heroics” prepare such children for employment and marriage, which demand honesty about who we are and what we can accomplish? What about the non-disabled child, who always is picked last when the captain chooses sides, strikes out three times in a game, and never receives special treatment? Can anything be done about society’s obsession with measuring and comparing?
Measuring with A Spiritual Perspective
An 80-year old and a 40-year old had just passed away and were waiting to enter heaven. The 40-year-old was summoned first.
Enraged, the 80-year-old shouted, “Don’t they respect the elderly in Heaven?”
The chief angel responded, “In Heaven, we don’t use earthly time to measure a soul’s age. If a person used his or her day well on earth, we add it to his or her spiritual age. If he or she wasted the day, then we don’t count it.”
“During your eighty years,” continued the angel, “you used twenty years’ worth of your days well. This other gentleman used 27 out of his 40 years well. In Heaven, he’s older than you are. Please respect your elders and wait quietly until I call you.”
The parable clarifies a phrase in this week’s Torah portion “Abraham was old, well on in years,” (literally, he came with many days.) The second clause of the sentence may seem superficial, but it refers to Abraham’s age measured by “heavenly standards.” He excelled in hospitality and divine service during his earthly existence.
How Rav Zisha Measured His Days
At the end of his life, the Chasidic Rav Zisha said, “I’m not worried if they will ask me why I didn’t display the kindness of Abraham, the genius of the Vilna Gaon, or the courage of Isaac. I’m only worried that they’ll ask me why I didn’t become Zisha, why I didn’t accomplish what I could have.”
We are not obligated to be the most outstanding scholar, an admired athlete, the life of every party, or an upwardly mobile business-person. Judaism does urge each of us to use our God-given gifts each day to improve our character traits and to strengthen our communities.
To measure your days, ask yourself, “What can I do today that brings me closer to fulfilling my own individual potential?
A native of Bradley Beach, New Jersey, Rabbi Michael Levy attributes his achievements to God’s beneficence and to his courageous parents. His parents supported him as he explored his small home town, visited Israel and later studied at Hebrew University, journeyed towards more observant Judaism, received rabbinic ordination, obtained a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University and lectured on Torah- and disability-related topics.
As a founding member of Yad Hachazakah — the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center (www.yadempowers.org), Rabbi Levy strives to make the Jewish experience and Jewish texts accessible to Jews with disabilities. In lectures at Jewish camps, synagogues and educational institutions, he cites Nachshon, who according to tradition boldly took the plunge into the Red Sea even before it miraculously parted. Rabbi Levy elaborates, “We who have disabilities should be Nachshons –boldly taking the plunge into the Jewish experience, supported by laws and lore that mandate our participation.” Rabbi Levy is currently director of Travel Training at MTA New York City Transit. He is an active member of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, NY. He invites anyone who has disability-related questions to e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org