This past week, Jews around the world commenced the reading of the Book of Exodus as part of the annual Torah reading cycle. This past week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shemot, contain important moments between God and Moses that are often glossed over in the popular recounting of Moses’ encounter with God, wherein God tells Moses that he will lead the Children of Israel from slavery to freedom. These important dialogic encounters, and the way in which God responds to Moses are important for all of us to take note of, but are of special import, I believe, for those of us who too often find ourselves on the margins of our sacred communities.
In the fourth chapter of Exodus, Moses expresses his hesitancy regarding his fitness for leadership owing to a speech impediment. Though this is quite common knowledge, what I believe tends to be overlooked is the way in which God responds to Moses’ expression of self-doubt. In Exodus 4:10, Moses makes it quite clear that he lacks eloquence—leaders do need to be rhetorically gifted, after all—and henceforth who is he to assume the mantle of leadership? God, seemingly ignoring this protestation, responds with a rhetorical question—who makes people abled or disabled? Is it not I, God? Although the theology behind this particular verse is a theology I personally and wholeheartedly reject, in context, God is sending an incredibly powerful message to Moses, one which we all should heed. God knows Moses is slow of speech, but God made him that way, and henceforth, if we believe that all human beings are created in the Divine Image, then there cannot be such a thing as a broken or blemished human being, all societal messages to the contrary.
God then follows up this theologically problematic pronouncement with something that we all should take a moment to internalize. God, without any forethought, without wondering what it would cost, without wondering how it would look, provides Moses with a perfectly natural and sensible—dare I say reasonable—accommodation. His brother, Aaron, whom we are lead to believe is a good orator, will speak for him, and Moses will tell him what to say. With this accommodation, Moses is able to become the greatest of our prophets—no small accomplishment.
When we look at this episode, and we think about Moses having a disability, we tend not to think about the ways in which the text explicitly calls for his disability to be accommodated, and the nonchalance with which God states that this will be so. It certainly appears that from the Divine perspective, accommodation of Moses’ disability is no big deal—he simply needs support to be the best leader he can be. Society is structured in such a way that those who are able-bodied or able-minded receive, daily, the supports we need to be fully successful in the world. Those amongst us who have a visible or invisible disability often lack these supports. Accommodation, then, isn’t a burden, a manifestation of special treatment or the like. Rather, it is enabling individuals with disabilities to live wholly and fully in the world with our non-disabled peers.
I believe that the model we see here in Exodus 4 ought to be the foundational paradigm for how we affirm and include the marginal amongst us, not merely those with disabilities. After all, Moses is marginal in other ways—raised in the palace, in the lap of luxury, he did not endure the humiliation and degradation of slavery, and must build up trust with the Israelites. So, too, people with disabilities, for the most part, do not experience impairment in a vacuum. We have many other horizontal identities, because disability exists in all human communities. Henceforth, the work of affirmation needs to be wholly intersectional in its execution.
I believe deeply that most human beings yearn to be part of something larger than themselves, and that religious communities have the power to make manifest this sacred impulse. Nonetheless, religious communities too often have and continue to marginalize those in their midst who are different from the mainstream, and it is particularly painful when rhetoric or actions which marginalize folks come from the clergy or others in positions of religious authority. If we are to live up to the highest teachings found in all of our traditions, and live out the ideals of justice, equality, human dignity, and affirmation of all that I believe are at the very heart of what it means to be a religious person in the modern world, we will take this episode to heart.
Moses’ disability was no barrier to his assuming the mantle of leadership. All of us have something to teach and learn from one another. Indeed, one of the most satisfying aspects of Judaism, I feel, is my ability to teach and learn Torah from all. God did not tell Moses not to go out and teach Torah—quite the contrary. Too frequently, though, those who are not in the mainstream, who may have just recently sat down at the sacred table of communal leadership or are still trying with all they have to have their Torah heard and internalized by all are not met with such an affirming message, and we lose so much Torah when folks feel they have nowhere to go but to leave our communities. Though the Torah they have to teach may be difficult, jarring—painful, even—we need to open our minds and hearts to hear the wisdom within. We all have preconceived notions and ideas which form the backbone of the models we work within, the ways we accomplish things in the world. Having those ideas upended is a difficult thing for us all. If we allow ourselves to open to that which we may find to be deeply painful, or not in congruence with what we perceive, we may find that the expansion of our minds and hearts enables us to go places we never felt possible. And for those amongst us who feel alienated from our sacred communities at times, I charge us with a task which is two-fold. First, seek out communities of individuals with whom you feel safe and with whom you feel you are able to build yourself up while constructively working through some of the difficulties you may be experiencing. With that wellspring of support behind you, take up the sacred space that is yours in your communities. Merely being a part of a community communicates volumes. We are here, we are part of the community, and we are not going anywhere.