Sinai Moments: by Karen Selsberg
Parshat Yitro, delivered February 2, 2018- Inclusion Shabbat
by Karen Selsberg
I’ve always loved Moses. I remember sitting in one of the many small shuls in Jerusalem, in the women’s section, with my friend--we were on an Israel program together..so a REALLY long time ago--It was Simchat Torah. Everyone was dancing and singing--the men with the Torah outside, the women without the Torah inside. And my friend and I, were trying to get up as much energy and ruach as them, when we decided that there was no way we could participate unless we read the last chapter of the Torah, and then go back to the beginning---which is the whole point of Simchat Torah. So we did. But I couldn’t make it past the last few lines: “So Moses, the servant of the Lord died there, in the land of Moab, at the command of the Lord. ...Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses--whom the Lord singled out face to face…” The power of those words, and the image it conveyed of this man who delivered the Israelites to the Promised Land, without ever entering it himself, it just seemed to me to be unfair. And instead of feeling the joy of Torah, I felt the irony of a life incomplete.
And with this emotional pull, my Jewish journey began. As I chose to be an observant Jew, (keep the laws of kashrut and Shabbat) I knew that what connected me to Judaism. The mitzvot, the learning, the singing, the Torah. I began to once again chant Torah and Haftarah. I learned to chant Megilat Esther. And it was clear that this was the Judaism I was going to pass down to my children: the sweetness of the mitzvot, the oneg of the the Torah, the joy of being Jewish.
And then came Aitan. From almost the very beginning we knew that Aitan wasn’t like his brothers. His features were different. He wasn’t meeting his milestones. He stopped growing. But he was friendly, happy, and loved being around people. We saw doctor after doctor, did test after test. And we discovered, that Aitan’s disability, like so many, doesn’t have a name. So, we named his disability the Aitan Ezra syndrome. But we kept asking ourselves: What does this all mean?
And, there was Moses. In chapter 4 of Exodus, God speaks to Moses from the burning bush. And no less than 5 times, God tells Moses that Moses needs to go back to Egypt, talk to the Pharaoh and have Pharaoh free the Israelites from slavery. And Moses keeps saying “no”. In his final excuse he says “ Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past, or now; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue. And God answered him,”Who gives man speech? Who makes him mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not, I the Lord? Now, go and I will be with you as you speak and will instruct you what to say.”
For the first time I read these lines, not as a disinterested student of Torah, but as the mother of a child who didn’t fit the mold. The image of God being Moses’s protector, mentor, and motivator, resonated. And Moses overcoming his disability to lead the Israelites into the Promised land encouraged me. Here was Moses, the greatest prophet in Judaism, now a beacon of inclusion.
And this became the framework as I navigated the Jewish world--and the world in general--with Aitan. Aitan has always loved going to shul. As a baby, he would listen to the davening and singing, and when learned to crawl (at 13 months) he would crawl to the Cantor. And when he could walk (at 2 ½ years) he would dance around the room, davening and singing when he finally began to talk (4 years old). And at Shabbat dinners he would make our guests hold hands around the table as we sang Shalom aleichem. It seemed music was his gateway to Judaism. Except when I read Torah. Then he cried. Maybe he would have preferred that small orthodox shul in Jerusalem.
And we all helped him. Dan and me. Asher and Sammy. Family. Friends. Congregants. We sang with him. We danced with him. It was the Torah coming to life. It was like God and Aaron helping Moses. And it was good.
Until it wasn't. Because what's cute and funny at 3 or 4, isn't at 6 or 7. Or...9 1/2. In a typical child’s development, as they grow up, their behaviors and thinking grow concurrently with their age. That's not necessarily the case with a non-typical child. Because Aitan's development is delayed, he will never catch up to his peers. And he will never BE like his peers. And the differences that seemed subtle, or not so bad at 3 become more apparent and glaring the older he gets.
It’s not that anyone judges Aitan. Not even when he dances in the middle of the room or on the bima. Or talks in non sequitur. Or flaps. Or laughs for no reason. Even when he tantrums. Because this is just Aitan being Aitan. And people--you--roll with it. But can I?
Being parents of a special needs child means we are constantly struggling to find the balance of fitting Aitan into this world, while trying to see the world through his eyes, and giving him the freedom to be himself. How can we help him to channel all the feelings that literally burst from him? How can we balance our expectations of sitting quietly and appropriately in shul, with him wanting to run and dance around to his favorite prayers? Why is it so important that we try?
And again, there's Moses. In this week's Torah portion, the Israelites receive the Torah. Yet they are afraid to hear God's voice, so they ask Moses to speak instead. And Moses does. This same man who 15 chapters, and several years ago told God that he had a speech defect and this disability would stop people from listening to him. That there was no way he could succeed. That he would never be more than just a shepherd. Now he was speaking to an entire nation.
And as I read this, I think of the incredible courage it must have taken Moses to do this. Talking to God in private, with no one looking is one thing. Who cares what you sound like? You can stutter all you want--God will understand you. But on a mountaintop--you need a strong voice to be heard. You have to have confidence. And you can’t stutter. You have to rise above your disability. And Moses did it. His moment at Mount Sinai became the backbone of our religion.
And I think...can Aitan be like Moses? In the Torah, God sees a potential that Moses himself doesn’t see. And the people around Moses don’t either . But it was there. And God knew it. And this is our role with Aitan. I don’t know what his Sinai moment will be. I don’t know when it will be. But his potential is there. Even if he can’t see it and even if others can’t see it.
The story of Moses is the story of inclusion--of someone reaching heights he doesn’t even know he is capable of because of the confidence of those around him. The story of Moses teaches us that inclusion isn’t just about accepting a person for who she is. It is pushing them, encouraging them, helping them to reach their potential--even when--especially when they cannot do it themselves. This is what we do for each other. We see each other’s potential even when they can’t. And in this way, Moses’s story is not about believing in God. It is about God believing in us. Maybe this message is what I sensed on that Simchat Torah in Jerusalem long ago.
On this first Inclusion Shabbat at Temple Sholom, as we read the 10 commandments, we can see ourselves in Moses’ journey, and in Aitan’s journey. It is a journey that we are all a part of. Because, what God did to help Moses reach his Sinai moment...this is what I must do to help Aitan. And it is what we all must do to help each other reach our Sinai moment.