The 5778 Ne-ilah (closing Yom Kippur Service) was about to begin.  In all honesty, my thoughts of the break-fast distracted me from the liturgy.Maybe this break-fast would be a great leap forward for me in my attempt to stop gaining weight (It didn’t happen.)  Instead, I gained a wealth of spiritual Information through the concluding Yom Kippur sermon of Rabbi Shai Schachter.

A Strange Liturgical Passage

In the final Amidah of the High Holiday season, worshippers recite “”O Lord our God, you have lovingly given us this Yom Kippur Day, the culmination of forgiveness for all our sins, so that we may cease to commit violent robbery.”

Of all the sins that could be mentioned, why does the prayer single out violent robbery?  While we are far from perfect, nobody has burglarized a home or robbed a bank.

The Thief in Our Midst

The Kotzker Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgenstern, suggested that we don’t steal from others–we steal from ourselves!  We don’t appreciate the unique combination of talents and attributes which God gave to every human being. Instead, we try to be somebody else.

God Does Not Want “Carbon Copy” Imitation

The Mystic Rabbi Shimmon Bar Yochai pursued no worldly occupation, but instead devoted himself completely to study and prayer.  “There were many who imitated him, but (ultimately) achieved nothing” (Gemara Tractate Brachot 35.)

R. Joseph Solovechik, in “Divrei hagahot vha-aracha (Insights and Values, page 225) explains “In every individual there (exists) a particular treasure (described as a ‘unique color’) possessed by no one else. S/he is expected to develop that unique color to enrich the (rainbow of) the community at large. No one can replicate that color.”

Using another metaphor, we each have a voice which adds to the harmony of the community choir.

Voices in the Disability Community

Powerful organizations, almost all led by the non-disabled, proclaim, openly or by implication,”We are the voice of the disability community.” They encourage us to heed the words of actors, athletes, authors, health professionals, inventors, law enforcers and statesmen as they hold forth about some aspect of disability.

The disabled Jews who quietly pursue their dreams, the Jews who become disabled later in life, the Jews who strive for integration through barrier removal and community-based advocacy may well ask “What about our voices?”

The Voice of “Ability Awareness”

Based on the sources mentioned above, every human being, disabled or non-disabled, should have the opportunity, in his own way,  to “find his voice,” to search for and become aware of his/her unique abilities. If I ruled the medical and social services world, I would decree that every case file contain not only a list of limitations, but also a list of unique strengths.

Gatherings of the Jewish disabled should not overlook the average person with a disability, his (as it were) “average aspirations” and the specific barriers which must be confronted daily until they no longer interfere with integration.

May God hasten the day when every unique individual in the house of Israel discovers the treasures hidden within him and, free from barriers, uses his unique talents and characteristics to strengthen and enrich his community.

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.