How much should I depend on others? Does depending on others mean that I am “giving in” to my disability? If I am overly dependent, will I end up in a dull dark world where I rely on others to bring me happiness?

Issues like these confront some people with disabilities almost every day. A person whose upper body movements are limited could spend two hours dressing herself or dress in 10 minutes with assistance from a health aid. After a stroke, a person no longer able to drive must either travel on four buses from home to work or depend on a friend to drive him.

Psalm 23’s Perspective

The 23rd Psalm, which begins “The Lord is my Shepherd,” teaches that there is a spiritual component to the dependence versus independence question. Its three themes (in my adaptation of the text) have provided me with guidance and a measure of tranquility.

Life

All of us begin life completely dependent on others. God nourishes me not just with food and shelter, but also with the ability to learn about the world around me and become more independent in it. He is not just “A Shepherd,” but also “My Shepherd,” understanding that I and every other human being must travel on a unique path to maturity.

My parents did their best to avoid stereotypes about my blindness. If they were anxious, they nevertheless did not keep me “penned in” more than my siblings. In the same way that the Psalm’s “rod and staff” guide and discipline a wayward flock, my parents enforced rules and established boundaries so that I could live safely and behave appropriately.

Liberty

“You (God) prepare a table before me, even in the presence of my enemies.” The “I” of the Psalmist is no longer a helpless sheep, but rather a maturing human being who sometimes faces adversity.

Notice that God does not eliminate my enemies — be they cruel people or unjust discriminatory policies. Rather, He (through educators and sacred texts) guides me through my struggle, giving me the freedom to construct an internal "set table." I learn to marshal my resources and travel toward my life goals, even when it would be easier to, as it were, kick over the table and give up.

The Pursuit of Happiness

Would that (opportunities to express) goodness and loving-kindness pursue me all the days of my life, so that I may "live in God's house forever." I can myself become a shepherd. I can “live in God’s house” — i.e. imitate God by recognizing the unique needs and capabilities of other human beings.

In the light that God sheds on us, may we shepherd others on their journey from dependence to independence. Unlike the brief illumination of fireworks, the brightness of personal independence grows stronger and can last a lifetime.

Rabbi Michael Levy: As a founding member of Yad Hachazakah, the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center, 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, N.Y. He invites anyone who has disability-related questions to email him.