I am part of a “Community of Practice” that meets monthly. Our group is comprised of educators who work in Jewish schools. Together, we study and learn together on the topic of supporting inclusion of individuals with disabilities within our schools. Each meeting begins with one member offering a “D’var Torah”. Literally, this means “words of Torah”. We connect the Torah story of the week to the work we are doing around inclusion. It was my turn today…. and even though I’m not experienced in writing a D’var, I was happy with the way this one turned out. So here it is. Enjoy!
D’Var Torah – Parsha Vayikra
I’d like to start with a story I posted on my personal Facebook page last week:
We have a fence in our backyard that’s about 10 panels long. In the last storm, the posts that hold up the first three panels got uprooted. David called a contractor to come look at the fence, and give an estimate for repair. Yesterday, the doorbell rang. It was the contractor. He was a big, taciturn-looking guy with a thick Russian accent. I went with him into the back yard to look at the fence. Big Fence Guy paces back and forth a few times, scratching his chin as he goes. Then he comes back to me.
Big Fence Guy: I theenk you have two choices. You can replace whole fence, which weel cost lots. Or, you can replace just posts ruined in storm. I’m not sure how long rest of fence will last, so I’m not sure best answer.
Me: Oh, I see. You’re not sure which advice to give me. It sounds like you’re on the fence.
Big Fence Guy:
Me: It’s an American expression. “On the fence” means you’re having trouble making a decision.
Big Fence Guy:
Me: In your line of work, I think that’s an expression you might enjoy knowing.
Big Fence Guy: (after a long pause, I see a slight smile). Yes, that’s good expression to know.
In the current political climate, I’ve been very mindful of trying to make connections with people from a wide variety of backgrounds. I really enjoyed creating this particular bridge with a person whose job it is to build fences.
And,yes…. I’m well aware that I’m a nerd.
While most of my friends appreciated the story, the puns, and my nerdiness… I did get push-back from one friend who argued that we should always reach out to people who are different from us, no matter what the political climate.
And this brings me to this week’s parsha.
In this first Parsha in the Book of Leviticus, G-d describes to Moses the laws of animal sacrifice. G-d goes into great, great detail about which animals shall be sacrificed, how they should be sacrificed, when they should be sacrificed and why they should sacrificed. There is very little left to the imagination in this recitation of laws.
Which led me to wonder, given that animal sacrifice is no longer part of Jewish ritual practice, what can be learned from this parsha? As I read through the commentaries, I discovered some of the purposes for sacrificing animals: to give the People of Israel a physical act that they could do to atone for sins, show appreciation to G-d, and also to bring themselves closer to G-d.
In modern life, our prayer services have taken the place of ritual sacrifice. Three times a day, there is an opportunity to physically take out a prayer book, and engage with G-d through prayer.
I also think a mindful commitment to Jewish values can take the place of ritual sacrifice as well. I believe that we all have good intentions. Jewish ritual and prayer can help us to transform those good intentions, which only exist in our minds and hearts, into behavior that carries out into the world.
Take the story at the beginning. In our current political climate, my heart aches for immigrant families who live in fear of being deported and Muslim people (or people who resemble Muslims) who live in fear of being the target of hatred and bigotry. But it’s not enough for my heart to ache. I need to turn that ache into action. Make donations, attend rallies, and yes… even make a gesture of friendship and humor towards the big, burly guy who is mending my fence.
How does this relate to inclusion?
For all of us here, we are committed to making our schools, synagogues and communities more inclusive and welcoming towards individuals with disabilities. This Torah portion reminds us that it’s not enough for that commitment to reside within our own hearts and minds. In order to fulfill our commitment to inclusion, we need to be constantly at the ready to back up our commitment with action- even when that action is uncomfortable. We need to be ready to look beyond a child’s behavior (even if that behavior really pushes our buttons), and try to decode the message the child is communicating through the behavior. We need to be ready to offer feedback to our colleagues, even if we know that feedback might not be readily welcomed. We need to be ready to push back on parents, community members, or decision-makers in our communities if they are clinging to beliefs that pose barriers to inclusion.
Inclusion can be hard work. It can be messy and uncomfortable. However, we can hold on to the thought that that the work we do is an outward expression of a commitment to our Jewish values. And that thought can help us persevere when the work becomes difficult.