Tisha b’Av commemorates the destruction of both the First and Second Jerusalem Temples. Our sages explain that the seeds of these tragedies took root during a much earlier event (Talmud Tractate Ta-anit, 29A).
Moses, from the wilderness, dispatched twelve spies to survey the land of Israel that the Israelites were to inhabit. According to tradition, the spies returned on the 9th of Av, reporting that the land was exceedingly good and displaying its produce.
But ten of the spies then reported that the inhabitants of the land, including giants, were too strong to conquer. Joshua and Caleb, the other two spies, encouraged the people to fight for the land. Because the Israelites chose to believe the ten spies, God delayed their entrance into Israel by forty years (Numbers 13: 1—14: 23).
It is more helpful to learn from the Israelites than it is to condemn their error. What led to their unfortunate choice?
The ten spies formed a clear majority, although Joshua was a military leader and was closest to Moses. The spies’ report started with facts (the good produce) but veered into perception (we cannot conquer the land).
The Israelites perceived the giants as invincible. After all, they had recently emerged from a culture of Egyptian slavery in which even the thought of risk-taking was frightening.
Moses, recalling the episode of the spies in this week’s torah portion, Devarim, noted, “You sulked in your tents” (Deuteronomy 1, 27). The sulking spiralled into an avalanche of despair.
Like the Israelites, those of us with disabilities often make choices based on perceptions. All too often, we get “reports” (messages spoken and implied) from the majority society, which emphasize limitation rather than capability.
Stereotypes abound around disability: mental illness means isolation; segregated settings are always best for the developmentally disabled; people with impaired speech are unintelligent.
Even well-meaning service providers might overlay a fact, like a diagnosis, with opinions, like “Now that you’re totally blind, you’ll never again have independent access to a newspaper,” or “It’s always better to use crutches than it is to use a wheelchair.”
We’ve only recently emerged from a culture that followed the “medical model” of disability, in which the person was perceived through the lens of their “defect.” We can now view disability from the more rational perspective of the “independent living model,” which emphasizes the societal barriers (attitudes, architecture, transportation and communication) that prevent people with disabilities from participating fully in their communities.
But like Joshua and Caleb, knowledgeable disability advocates can present you with positive choices and demonstrate their own ability to make decisions based more on facts than on fantasies. A series of such “good choices” can start a person with a disability on a journey towards a more independent, productive and meaningful life.
As Jews, let’s hope that good individual and communal choices, and help from our Creator, lead to an era when mournful Tisha B’av will be transformed into a joyful holiday (Zechariah 8, 19). Perception does not have to be reality.
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.