Message from Rabbi Pokras - February 2018

My challenge to each of us this year of 2018 is to try to be more present and attentive to the world around us and most importantly the people we interact with.

Dear Beth Ami family,

As “Disability Awareness Month,” February offers us the opportunity to reflect on how all of us are created in the image of the Divine; and that we should treat each other accordingly. So, let’s take a little time together, at the beginning of the month, to think about what it means to be created btzelem Elohim (in the image of God).

In Gen. 1:27, in the passage about the sixth day of creation, we read:

And God created the human in his image,

in the image of God He created him,

male and female He created them.

[translation by Alter, Robert. The Five Books of Moses.]

The best way to understand this passage is to look at what Torah has to say about God in the previous 26 verses. What does God do? God creates, speaks, distinguishes, separates, names, sees, judges (“and it was good”) and blesses. Perhaps our ability to do the same, albeit on a human level, is how we reflect the Divine image to each other and to God. These qualities certainly distinguish us from the rest of creation and, if we think about it, are the source of our own power in the world.

What does this have to do with Disability Awareness Month? Everything! None of these characteristics, with the possible exception of speaking, depend upon having “able” bodies. Whether we are disabled or not, we all have the ability to use our imagination creatively, we all have the ability to distinguish and judge (or in other words, to cultivate wisdom), we all have the ability to be a blessing and most of us have the ability to communicate. We are all of us created in the Divine image and we, all of us, can be a reflection of the Divine for each other.

Our tradition teaches that when we recognize the Divine in each other, we treat each other accordingly. Yet, far too often, we forget.

Perhaps that is why the Torah highlights the ability of the disabled. Indeed, although the language is different in the Torah, both Jacob and Moses – two of our greatest leaders – are described as disabled. Did you know that?

In Genesis 32, Jacob had an unusual encounter with the Divine. He wrestled with something [we don’t exactly know what] through the night and, in the course of the wrestling, his hip socket was wrenched. As the sun started to come up, the being he was wrestling with, described simply as “a man”, begged Jacob to let him go. However, Jacob refused until the man gave Jacob a blessing. The blessing was that Jacob’s name would henceforth be changed to Israel, which means: “he wrestled with God and prevailed.” This is how we got our name! From that moment on, Jacob walked with a significant limp. In a very real sense, the very act of becoming disabled is what made Jacob whole.

Moses faced a different challenge. At the Burning Bush, when God called Moses to leadership, Moses tried to refuse, saying: “I am heavy-mouthed and heavy tongued.” [Ex. 4:10] In other words, Moses, who defied Pharaoh, brought us Torah and lead our people from slavery to the Promised Land, had a severe speech impediment. Indeed, God sent Aaron, Moses’ brother, to speak in place of Moses – but the leadership remained with Moses.

It is easy to forget about the challenges Jacob and Moses faced, and simply focus on their great accomplishments - and that is exactly the point! Their disabilities did not define them, but rather their ability to truly live in God’s image.

At Beth Ami, we are committed to being a community so embracing and accessible that disabilities never get in the way of our ability to be creative, our ability to cultivate wisdom, and our ability to be a blessing to each other.

I hope that you will enjoy reading about some of the specific ways we are acting on this commitment in the pages ahead. And, I would also like to challenge each of us to adopt a spiritual practice I once learned from my teacher Rabbi Dr. Eugene Borowitz (of blessed memory). Each day when he would ride the New York subway to and from the College-Institute, he would mentally point at every single person in the car (and there were all kinds of people!) and say to himself: “b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of God.” May we do the same. Let’s mentally point at every person we see – especially those who are different from us, or whom (gasp) we dislike – and remind ourselves that they too are reflections of the Divine. Go ahead. I challenge you! It just might make your day.


Rabbi Gary Pokras