February 5, 2016
Inclusive Community Shabbat D’rash – Parashat Mishpatim
Years ago, for many of us, instead of opening our hearts to prayer, Hebrew school had the effect of silencing our natural instinct to prayer. Now – I certainly hope this no longer applies – but for just a moment go with me on this one.
To illustrate, Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav tells the story of a simple shepherd, who every day would offer his personal prayer to God: “God, I love you so much, if you were here, I would give you half my sheep. If it was raining and you were cold, I would share my blanket.” One day a great rabbi was walking by the field, and he heard the shepherd praying. He ran up to him, and said, “Do you call that praying? Are you kidding? What would God do with your sheep? Of what use would a blanket be to God? Here, let me show you to pray properly before you further desecrate God’s holy name!” The rabbi then got out a siddur, and gave a brilliant lecture on the structure and meaning of the various prayers, and explained what to say when to the poor illiterate shepherd. As soon as the rabbi left, the shepherd sat there dumbfounded. He didn’t understand a word of it. But he knew the great rabbi was quite upset that his prayers were not proper. So he stopped praying.*
And, so sadly for many in our community, that’s where the story ends…Their prayers and essentially their voices are silenced. However, here in our community – there is more to this story…
A recent innovation in the Jewish world has been to designate February as Disability and Inclusion Awareness Month. The secular month of February was chosen in part because this is usually the time of year we read the powerful and profound message of this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim from the book of Exodus. Among all the laws discussed in this portion, we are taught the mitzvah (commandment) of not taking advantage of the stranger, the widow and the orphan. As we read in Exodus: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not mistreat any widow or orphan (Exodus 22:20-21).”
Our commentaries address the question of why God loves and singles out these three groups – the ger or stranger, ya-tom, orphan and the almanah – widow – in such a special way. What unites these three kinds of people? Rabbi Loren Sykes teaches us: Based on the language of the commandment, we understand strangers, widows and orphans can easily be taken advantage of, be oppressed or be ignored. You can imagine the conversation: “It is too expensive to care for these people, let someone else take care of them” or “We are really sorry but we are just not equipped to help” or “You are not welcome here. Your child makes too many strange noises during services or during class.”
Of course the Torah’s call to not take advantage, to not oppress, to not ignore the stranger, the widow and the orphan resonates in today’s world. And in our modern context, we can extract the importance of caring for those who are particularly vulnerable.
And so, this month of February is a reminder to each of us: we can do more to include members of our community who are vulnerable; in particular those with special needs or disabilities; those whose prayers are uniquely their own. And in fact, it is the Torah’s imperative that we strive to make all who enter our community feel at home, welcomed and loved. And of course, this is the very foundation of our community and Temple Shalom’s vision.
However, our month of reflection and recognition should not only be a celebration of our intent. Let this evening also be a call to action. At Temple Shalom, our vision and values guide our understanding and the imperative of inclusion and there is much to do and much to celebrate.
Just this year, due to the generous support of members of our community, we welcomed Inclusion Coordinator, Emily Kieval to our education staff.
Our new Inclusive Community Task force has begun the process of creating a strategic plan so we can spread the word about great work happening in our community, as well envision ways we can grow. We will have the first draft of this plan ready soon and we hope many of you will participate in the process of making it reality.
We are proud of our deepening relationships with partner Jewish organizations such as Gateways, The Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project, Yachad and Synagogue Council as they, along with us, further the work of opening and then widening the doors – quite literally – of our community and its institutions.
Finally – a huge thank you to members of the Temple Shalom community and Inclusive Community Task Force. Your care, tireless effort and support have brought us to this moment. Your thoughtful plans including our (sadly canceled) dinner program celebrating our inclusive community are the result. We recognize each of you for your contribution.
And so, remember the story of our shepherd and know his stifled prayer is not where our story ends. Instead, our story continues as we strive as a Jewish community to open our arms, minds and hearts.
In closing I share with you a blessing: Baruch Ata Adonai, Eloheinu, Melech ha-olam, asher kidshanu bemitzvotav vetzivatnu lirdof tzedek, u’lichabed kol nefesh. Blessed are you, Our God, spirit of the universe, who makes us holy with your mitzvot (commandments) and commands us to pursue justice and to honor all people.
*This story, based on a Talmudic tale, can be found in the book, Days of Awe: Stories for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur by Eric Kimmel (Puffin, 1993). I only included half the story in the D’rash but this abridgment along with the second half of the story is found in Rabbi Barry Leff’s Rosh Hashanah sermon, 2003: http://www.jacksonsnyder.com/arc/Midrash/56.htm