As you know, originally for this Shabbat, we were going to have the opportunity to learn with Eliana Hall, our Director of Lifelong Learning, specifically on this issue of inclusion and disability. As I’m sure we’re aware, they’ve had a loss in their family, a profound one, and as is our tradition, they are relieved of their obligation to participate. Instead, we wish for them and their family to find comfort and strength and we express our sorrow and condolences.
Nevertheless, we have an opportunity to explore our Torah portion, one that many of us find dear. A few moments ago, we recited from the Torah God’s command to bring gifts, in order to make God a sanctuary that God may dwell among us. We could spend a lot of time on the minutia of the various gifts, and freewill offerings, and what it means to make a physical sanctuary, a mishkan, a tabernacle; the gold and silver and semi-precious stones and different fabrics, and often that’s exactly what we do, often with a bit of concern about God requesting gifts. But as I’ve been thinking about this text, I’ve been thinking about what it means to flip the narrative and wonder if the text is asking us a different question. Rather than asking what a freewill offering is and what it means to bring it, is Torah actually asking us whether we can create sacred space at all unless people are able to bring their gifts? That is, can one create a sanctuary if someone, anyone, is left out, is unable to see themselves in the creation of that sacred space? Remember, God invites those whose heart so moves them, which we understand to be an emotional motivation. But for the ancient reader, the heart is not the seat of emotion, but the seat of understanding and wisdom; it is, in fact the mind. It’s therefore not just an emotional question but a logical one: do I belong here?
When we start to read the text that way, it raises all kinds of questions for us. Not to focus on the gifts that are present but those that are missing, that are absent. Who’s missing from the table? Who voice isn’t lifted up? Each of us, at various points, has been the person on the outside looking in, the person who’s gift was profoundly missing, and therefore didn’t see, couldn’t see themselves as part of the community. We know how painful that can be, how isolating; perhaps those experiences have even motivated us to try to do better at being more inclusive. On this Shabbat where we observe Disability Awareness Month, we have the opportunity to explore that question of inclusion for our friends who are themselves disabled. What does inclusion mean? It means more than just making our congregational experiences accessible. Accessibility is important: ramps and hearing aid devices and glasses at the door and livestreamed services and the like all help to welcome people in. But inclusion must mean more than that. It means accepting those who are disabled as whole persons in our midst, whose experiences are rich and meaningful and who have real gifts, equal gifts to bring to the community. It means remembering that their experiences are only reduced or lesser when the community minimizes them. This is especially important when the disability is invisible: the person with anxiety or nervous tics or depression who may want to share themselves but are afraid of rejection and diminution.
As We must, in effect, perform an act of tzimtzum. Tzimtzum is a mystical notion; it means to contract, to make space. It is the action God performs in creating Creation, where God withdraws just enough so that existence can exist. But withdrawal doesn’t mean absence; As Shai Held writes, God remains radically present in Creation. And while that sounds very abstract, that’s what we do in meaningful relationships, right? We make space for the other, while remaining engaged and present, so that they can thrive and bring their gifts forward in the relationship. It is no different in sacred community. We must always endeavor to create space so that those who have been othered by their disability can bring their gifts. As a congregation, we pride ourselves on our efforts; we strive to make sure those with hearing issues can follow along, those with mobility issues can be present (well, when we’re all in the building together), and those with learning challenges still can celebrate bar and bat mitzvah. Not only that, but we strive to make sure those who have disabilities are visible, singing in our choir or chanting Torah or helping in our religious school. But the work is not done. There are parts of our building that are still inaccessible, like our Youth Lounge. And as allies, we must be careful to not overstep, to imagine that we know better because we are not disabled, inadvertently belittling the gifts they bring. And we must learn to see their gifts not as value added, but rather as essential to our being as a congregation, because if they do not bring their gifts, then our sanctuary is diminished. In fact, it is not a sanctuary at all.
Create for me a sanctuary that I may dwell within. The sacred can only dwell, can only be present, where we allow it to exist, and it cannot exist when we Other the disabled in our midst. Their gifts are essential to our community, their accessibility and visibility and advocacy must inform us and we must always remember that they belong here. And when we do that, we will fulfill the prophet Jeremiah’s words commenting on this portion, “You shall walk in all the ways that I command you, so that it will be good for you.” May it be good for them, and us. Amen.