“Right is might” civilizations mistreat vulnerable people—slaves, strangers, widows, orphans and the poor. This week’s Torah portion obligates us to see to the material well-being of these disadvantaged groups. Equally important is the support we provide through empathy.
An Israelite man became a slave if he couldn’t repay some one whom he had robbed. If the slave had a family, the master became responsible for supporting them. The slave’s term of servitude could not last more than six years.
Underlying these precepts is empathy — concern for the slave’s dignity. While laboring to repay his debt, he was spared the pain of seeing his family impoverished.
“You shall not mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you (yourselves) were strangers in the land of Egypt.” [Exodus 22, 20.] While none of us went through Egyptian bondage, many of us have experienced periods of estrangement. The new family on the block, the new kid in school are “strangers.” If a person becomes disabled, some friends and family members suddenly can’t bring themselves to have casual and easygoing conversations with him. This estrangement can be more distressing than the disability itself.
Widows and Orphans
God’s empathy for widows and orphans is so strong that he can’t tolerate their mistreatment:
“If you oppress (any one of them,) causing them to bitterly cry out to Me, …. I will become angry, ….your own wives shall become widows and your own children shall become orphans. [Exodus 22, 22-23.]
The Chofetz Chayim and the Orphan
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, popularly known as the “Chofetz Chayim,” was involved in supporting orphans. Once, some philanthropists wanted to discontinue an orphan’s music lessons and foreign language instruction.
The Chofetz Chayim understood the orphan’s unique needs, and emphasized that enjoyment is as important as food and clothing. He commented to those who disagreed with him, “Why should it bother you if the angels in Heaven are smiling?”
All of Us Require Empathy
A disability per se does not automatically cause an individual to feel sad, vulnerable and downtrodden. Too often, however, there is lack of empathy.
Every person, disabled or non-disabled, is a unique individual, created in the image of God. Some one who doesn’t think, walk, see, hear, understand or behave the way you do is still a person who shares many of your feelings and goals. He or she, like you, seeks love, dignity and recognition of his uniqueness. Like you, he/she has particular interests—learning to play the clarinet, studying French, skiing or following every second of the Superbowl.
Going Beyond Sensitivity
“Sensitivity” teaches “what it is like to have a disability.” Those who lead “sensitivity and awareness” sessions must remind participants that any human being they meet, regardless of “disability status,” is unique and wants to be perceived as unique.
May our efforts to empathize with others cause the angels in Heaven to smile.
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