We begin the Seder by opening a door, Ha Lachma Anya, or inviting in the hungry, the needy, and the enslaved. We offer the matzah as part of that welcome—it is a beautiful message offered freely and inclusive to all. We read about the four sons, each representing a different type, a cross section of the Jewish nation. What links the four together, despite their very different personalities and levels of observance, is the fact that they are all an intrinsic part of the Jewish people. During Pesach, we celebrate with them, as they collectively join us at the Seder table.
Major General (Res.) Doron Almog, chairman of Jewish National Fund partner ALEH Negev-Nahalat Eran, writes:
“Memory is the most important definer of our essence. If we erase our memory, we cannot say who we are, what we are, and what we are doing in this world. In this sense, the axiom stated in the Passover Hagaddah, ’And you shall relate to your son on that day,’ is in actuality an existential command, ensuring our future from generation to generation by instilling an ethos of independence, the process of a nation’s transformation from a population of slaves to a people who dwell in security.”
But what if your son is the proverbial child who doesn’t know how to ask? Or, perhaps, like our son Eran, who was born with severe intellectual disabilities and never spoke, not even one word, in all of his 23-years? The Hagaddah’s answer is clear: ’Open up for him.’ You begin for him. It doesn’t say to be ashamed of him, or keep him separate, or distance him. The opposite is true. He sits with us on at the Seder table and he is an integral part of us. It is our responsibility to include even the most vulnerable, including those with the most severe disabilities in our world. We must open up for them the opportunity for hope.
The four sons the Torah speaks of – the smart son, the evil son, the simple son, and the one who doesn’t know how to ask – are metaphors for our entire nation, from the elderly to an infant: beginning with the smart one, with his great personal abilities; continuing to the evil one, always challenging the straight path; further to the simpleton, naïve and easily manipulated; and finally reaching the one who doesn’t know how to ask, who is totally dependent on our compassion. The one who doesn’t know how to ask personifies more than any of the others the lack of independence in which he finds himself. He relies on the dependency and compassion of others.
’You shall remember that you were slaves in the Land of Egypt,” is a commandment that repeatedly appears in the Bible. A central tool in the shaping of our heritage is remembering our original state of slavery and lack of independence. Stemming from this is the understanding that the very presence of the one who doesn’t know how to ask, his role in life, is to be the guiding light of our conscience. He is the one who reminds us of life’s priorities; he reminds of the value of our independence with which he was not blessed. He is the one who lets us know with his silent shout, ’Do not judge your friend until you stand in his place.’ He is the one whom it is easiest to bully, to discriminate against, and to deprive him of his rights. He is the one whose entire being is meant to bring us to the highest level of courage—the courage of giving honor and respect to every living creation. He is not able to do anything for himself, yet his very presence is a test of our humanity and our commitment to each other. He is the one who expresses more than any other the state of slavery; therefore, the more we do for him, the more we will be worthy of independence.
The more we do for him, the more inner strength we will have to show responsibility for each other. The more we do for him, the greater will be our love for humanity – the most powerful force to ensure our independence.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in his Pesach Haggadah, writes, “…What transforms the bread of oppression into the bread of freedom is the willingness to share it with others…” Being willing to share and include is also the first step in creating community buy-in and acceptance of those with disabilities, while freeing ourselves of that very human fear of difference. Breaking matzah together can ease the way toward reducing discomfort—over an evening replete with ice-breaking conversation and group activities.
An inclusive community is reminiscent of those first Seders in Egypt — doors open, tables set, bags packed — ready and hopeful for a community adventure all would experience together.
Our son has autism and he is always teaching us the meaning of unconditional love. Any child with disabilities has unique abilities and we should be focused on helping them, and most importantly, welcoming and bringing others like them to the Seder table with the rest of us.
I just came from Israel and there is a palpable sense of excitement within Jewish National Fund’s extended family in anticipation of the upcoming holiday, and the opportunities that are available for our children. Jewish National Fund’s work for individuals with disabilities and special needs in Israel, which I am privileged to lead, ensures that this child — and all of our children with disabilities — will have the same sense of belonging, of being part of the family, of being an integral part of the Jewish nation.
Yossi Kahana, a native-born Israeli, is the director of Jewish National Fund’s Task Force on Disabilities, an umbrella and coordinating body for the various JNF programs and partners for people with disabilities in Israel.