The Hebrew word Shavuot translates to “weeks” in English. It is a holiday marking the completion of the seven-week counting period between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot. During these seven weeks, the Jewish people cleansed themselves of the scars of Egyptian slavery and became a holy nation, ready to enter into an eternal covenant with G‑d with the giving of the Torah.
The evolution from the mindset of slavery to becoming a free people is a complicated process—one that does not happen at once. A slave’s mind and body are entirely under the domination of another. We, as a people, were freed with what is now Passover, but it took the passage of time, for us to reach Mt. Sinai, both literally and figuratively. It took a journey—with setbacks and mistakes along the way—for our ancestors to change as individuals and as a people. Only after we began to incorporate our sense of self as a free people could we be given the Torah. The journey from slavery to freedom required an intense cultural change as well, and involved many challenges along the way.
Cultural change is never simple, and we understand that the full inclusion of individuals with disabilities will require us to inspire a cultural change just as profound.
I am proud of the way we have made this change at Jewish National Fund (JNF-USA). As part of our focus on improving the quality of life in Israel for all its citizens, JNF is ensuring that no member of Israeli society is left behind. The fact that nearly 13% of Israel’s citizens are considered physically or mentally challenged is an opportunity for us to live our values. We believe passionately that the inclusion of people with disabilities and special needs should be woven tightly into the fabric of Jewish life.
This cultural change started on Shavuot when G-d gave the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai before the nation: It doesn’t matter if a person is young or old, male or female, abled or disabled. Sinai is for everyone, and if one member of the Jewish nation would not have been present at Sinai the Torah would not have been given.
Even though future generations of Jews were not yet alive, their souls were also present at the giving of the Torah. That includes us, our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents before them. The souls of all Jews, from all times, came together to hear the Ten Commandments from G‑d Himself.
Every year on the holiday of Shavuot we hear the Ten Commandments and reaffirm the covenant with G‑d and His Torah. Since we all stood at Mt. Sinai, we all should attend now regardless of our observance level, ability level, age, and understanding. Now, like then, let’s all be there and commit to being a welcoming and inclusive community for all by expanding the ways in which individuals are invited and encouraged to participate in Jewish life.
Parents of children with special needs often face challenges, and yet, many of them have found the inner strength to focus on the true blessing of raising a special soul. As a parent of a special needs child of my own, my son has given us a deeper understanding of life, and the ability to reach out to others in a way that others cannot. He has touched many lives while he has completely changed ours. As for me, I’m going with my son to the synagogue during the year and he loves it, so let’s encourage all parents of children with special needs—even those that are not attending synagogue during the year—to come with their child to services on Shavuot and listen to the Ten Commandment being read aloud.
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.