Time: About 2245 on the Jewish calendar (3500 years ago.)
Place: Hebron, Israel
Eleven of Jacob’s twelve sons had two or more children. Benjamin had ten!
The twelfth son, Dan, had one son, Chushim, who was deaf. Like many parents today, Dan might have worried, “What will be the future of my disabled child?”
The phrase “special needs child” hadn’t been invented yet. On his own, Chushim, trying to be ordinary, would communicate “What’s going on?” when he didn’t understand a situation.
When Chushim’s esteemed grandfather Jacob passed away. Jacob’s brother Esau, that old troublemaker, claimed that he had first rights to the single gravesite remaining in Machpelah, the ancestral burial site. Chushim’s uncle Naftali was sent off to find the appropriate legal documents.
Chushim inquired about the delay in Jacob’s burial. When he was told about Esau’s interference, his solution was a bit drastic. He beheaded Esau.
Nobody was terribly distressed or displeased. Apparently, Esau had it coming to him.
Father Dan was in a fix. His only son was deaf, and possessed, shall we say, a bit of a temper. “Oy, NOW what will happen to my disabled child?”
Time: 2,488 on the Jewish calendar
Place: The Plains of Moab, Across the Jordan from Jericho, Israel
The generation that left Egypt traveled in the desert for forty years. They did not merit entering the Promised Land.
2488 was an exciting year for the next generation. They were poised to cross the Jordan and conquer Israel. AS we read in this week’s Torah Portion, God commanded that Moses and the High Priest Elazar conduct a census.
“These were the descendants of Benjamin, totaling 45,600 (Numbers 26, 41.) “These were the descendants of Dan… (Through the Shuchamite (derived from Chushim) family, totaling 64,600 (Numbers 26, 42-43.)
We don’t know the details, but Chushim must have found a wife who admired him—deafness, temper and all. Together they raised a thriving family.
A Very Old “Jewish Normal”
In whatever civilization it lived, our Jewish nation has always “bucked the trend.” Surrounded by idolaters, we worshipped one God. In a society where men always dominated, the women of Israel had a place in shaping our history. In a world where the firstborn son assumed the mantle of leadership, many Israelite leaders were not firstborn sons.
Let us apply this very Jewish “old normal” to Jews with disabilities. If we leave room for God, Jews with disabilities need not resign themselves to “special futures,” included but yet on the sidelines.
Like Chushim, Jews with disabilities can strive to lead “ordinary lives,” knowing that God, and not statistics or misguided societal attitudes, is behind the scenes, determining their destinies and the destinies of their descendants.
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, 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