By fourth-year rabbinical student Edie Yakutis
In the 2017 Oscar-winning movie, “The Shape of Water”, the white, male antagonist is interrogating two cleaning women, one mute and the other Black, about an escaped humanoid river-creature. He draws a contrast telling them, “We’re created in the Lord’s image, He looks like a human. Like ME, or even you. Maybe a little more like me, I guess…” This movie is set in 1962. The Civil Rights Act had not been passed (1964), nor had the Americans with Disabilities Act (1992). It drives home an old perception that God looks like a human man, who is white and fully-abled, and that to be different from that, was to be LESS. Not like God.
This October, we are refreshing our cycle of Torah study. We begin, anew, with our creation story, Beresheit. In the first Torah Parashah for October, we read in Genesis 1:27, “And God created man in His image, in the image of God He made him, male and female.” This was on the sixth day… which God found tov me’od, very good.
God has made individuals of all types, all in Their image. As it is written in Mishneh Sanhedrin 4:5, “A human being mints many coins from the same mold, and they are all identical. But the Holy One of Blessing stamps each of us from the mold of the first human and each one of us is unique.” This drives the Jewish understanding that we are each uniquely gifted, with traits, skills, and potential like none other. We are each, that which we are, with the grace to be aware of those differences. There is even a blessing for seeing a person different from yourself, which, if you think about it, could be said the first time we see or meet anyone we did not previously know!
October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month with the message that people with disabilities are equally valuable everywhere, and especially in the workforce of a country that strives for equality. Our government classifies disabilities along the lines of mobility, neurodiversity, hearing, vision, and more. Roughly 1 in 4 people in the US live with a disability. There are laws aiming to ensure equal access for all, which have been implemented with varying degrees of success. October also roughly coincides with the month of Cheshvan (October 5-November 4). Cheshvan can be appreciated, due to its lack of holidays. This quieter month gives us an opportunity to study and discuss this very Jewish value, equality. It is written in Exodus 12:49, “one law for the citizen and the stranger who dwells among you”. This is intended as equality – for the one like you and the one unlike you, not just in citizenship, but in appearance and thought process/neurodiversity.
This month encourages us to focus on making change, to increase access and opportunities to engage which we might be missing in our communities. This is more than just remembering that so many individuals live with disabilities. It is looking for spaces to take action in making changes and to include the entire community. While we don’t ever intend to exclude others, we might be doing so inadvertently; when is the last time you consciously researched new avenues for inclusion and outreach to folks you don’t interact with, already?
It is written in Pirke Avot 2:5, “do not separate yourself from the community.” I would amend that statement to add, “do not separate others from the community.” Spend this quiet time reviewing accessibility, both in-person and online. We must not assume that if we see nothing “obvious”, there’s nothing “different” about that person. Or that if someone is not present, it is because they chose not to be there. Was there something discouraging their participation? If you are not sure, ask! As to not engage and ask, the inaccessibility cycle is perpetuated.
Earlier this summer, before the rise in the Delta variant of Coronavirus drove many people back into “pre-vaccine precautions” there were concerns raised that people with disabilities were about to be forgotten, again. Anticipation for a return to in-person workplaces, instead of remote working arrangements, had been rising. Many individuals with disabilities foresaw a brutal return to being excluded and left behind to the point of where they had been, pre-pandemic. Left out, and then, forgotten.
The 18 months of remote work, while painful for many, also gave so many other individuals increased opportunities, with flexible hours to support differing needs. I ask, is there really a good reason for that to change back if the opportunity to resume “old normal” arises? I question that there is any thoughtful reason to exclude the wider community, other than the calcified “the way we’ve always done it” trope. Coronavirus precautions have proved that there is more than one route to productivity.
As Jews, we need to remember that our ancestors had disabilities, too. Isaac had poor eyes (Genesis 27:1) as well as Leah (Genesis 29:17). Moses had a speech impediment (Exodus 6:30). Yet each individual moved our history forward. They were humans, and truly betzelem elohim – in God’s image. Or perhaps, God’s IMAGES.
In order to achieve true inclusivity, we must think of everyone’s needs, truly see each human being as the gift that they are, and ask what they need to participate. With that in mind, we can create more inclusive spaces for all. And I think that would be, as God said, tov me’od indeed.