By: Rabbi Michael Levy
Time: about 1500 BCE
Location: Goshen, Egypt
The Torah portion Vayechi (and Jacob lived,) which will be read in synagogues on January 3, 2015, describes an encounter between Jacob and his son Joseph (Genesis 48, 8-14.). The patriarch Jacob, elderly and nearly blind, is about to bless his grandchildren Menashe and Ephraim. He places his right hand on the head of Ephraim, the second-born, and his left hand on the head of Menashe, the first-born.
Observing this, Jacob’s son Joseph, the father of the two boys, feels compelled to correct his father, both verbally and by moving Jacob’s hands. He reminds his father that he should place his right (primary) hand on Menashe, the first-born son.
This might be the first recorded incident in which a non-disabled individual assumes that age and/or physical disability automatically result in diminished intellect or misguided judgment.
Jacob calmly reminds Joseph that not only does he know exactly what he is doing, but also that he prophetically foresees that Ephraim will be greater than his older brother. His perceived mistake is definitely not a mistake.
With calmness and dignity, Jacob maintains his position as the family patriarch whose closeness to God sometimes enables him to foretell future events.
Location: Jewish Communities
Frequently, many of us with physical disabilities encounter people who, like Joseph, assume that we can’t judge situations well. Once, as I tried to walk down subway stairs, a well-meaning commuter grabbed me from behind, assuming that I wanted to take the escalator. I wish I had maintained Jacob’s calmness and dignity when I responded.
Often, a waiter observing a non-disabled person and a person with a disability together will ask the non-disabled individual “What does HE want?” After 3500 years, the stereotype remains.
The Source of Jacob’s Dignity
A lifetime of family interactions prepared Jacob to respond with dignity to the “Joseph incident.” Jacob’s parents had disagreements. His brother Esau hated him. His father-in-law was a cheater. His wives quarreled, and ten of his sons were jealous of their brother Joseph.
Amidst this “mishpacha (family) vortex,” Jacob developed his unique personality and set out on his unique mission. Knowing that his personality was much more important than his disability, Jacob could respond to Joseph as a knowledgeable and understanding father.
Emulating Jacob: A Common Goal for Families and Self-Advocates
Schools camps and synagogues still have too many barriers that prevent participation by Jews with disabilities. However, while these institutions influence us, the “family crucible” has a much greater effect on how we perceive ourselves and who we become.
Sometimes families, imagining that it is constantly difficult and burdensome to live with a disability, act in ways that do not promote dignity and participation. Self-advocates can show them what it is really like to grow up with, and age with, a disability.
Families can teach self-advocates that regarding interventions in schools, camps and synagogues, one size does not fit all. The technique that works for Cindy may not work for Arthur.
The 3500-year-old “physical disability equals poor judgment” stereotype is not likely to disappear in our lifetime. May God help all of us to face this disability stereotype with dignity, as we repeatedly prove that the stereotype is a mis-perception.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org Rabbi Michael Levy participated in the recent Jewish self-advocate conference convened by the foundation.