The Hebrew Bible spans about 3,500 years. In the first eleven chapters of Genesis, a few verses may chronicle a few centuries.
However, at one point in this week’s Torah portion about Noah and the Flood, the narrative suddenly zooms in on one brief event:
Noah had sent out the dove to determine if the earth was habitable. “She
returned to him, to the Ark, because water still covered the entire world.
He stretched out his hand and took her, bringing her to him, to the Ark.”
(Chapter 8, Verse 9)
Noah was sensitive to the dove’s apparent exhaustion. Our tradition tells us that Noah and his family excelled in chessed (steadfast love) working unceasingly to feed and care for the animals in the Ark. Chessed is an attribute of God which we are called upon to emulate.
Sensitivity Towards Human Beings
Ethics of the Fathers urges us not to “assess” your fellow human being until you have “arrived at his place.” Before interacting with others, we must realize that our assessment of them and their needs may not be accurate.
In a typical “disability sensitivity training,” non-disabled individuals use a wheelchair, are fitted with earplugs or are blindfolded. They become more aware of what it’s like to have a disability.
However, if this is the extent of the training, it falls short in three respects:
Participants may conclude that the “disability experience” is the same for all disabled people. In truth, even two people with the same disability experience it differently.
The training helps participants understand only day one of being disabled. All beginnings are difficult. Trainers must clarify that a person with a disability who has effective support and training finds it much easier to cope on day 200.
Trainers must make it clear that the attitudes of others and lack of accommodations can cause more difficulty than the disability itself. When a wheelchair user confronts a flight of steps or a train that is not accessible, the problem is the architectural or transportation barrier that society has failed to remove, not the disability. Blind people confronted with texts available only in printed format or deaf individuals attending a lecture with no sign language interpreter can cope with their disability, but not with the communications barrier. No sensitivity training is complete without some discussion of promoting systemic changes to accommodate those of us who are disabled.
Sensitively Offering Assistance
Unlike the dove, those of us with disabilities vary in our attitudes about and need for assistance. Before you push a wheelchair user across the street or take a blind person’s hand to guide him, keep in mind that he or she may not want to cross the street or to be guided. Courteously ask if the person would like you to assist him or her.
You might also ask about the best way to provide assistance. A wheelchair user might request that some chairs be moved to make a narrow aisle accessible. A person who is blind may prefer to hold your elbow while you guide him, rather than your standing behind him and pushing him forward.
True sensitivity means that chessed is offered and provided with the understanding that every human being is different.
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 email@example.com