Bo is an unusual Torah portion, in that it opens in the middle of a story – the story that immediately precedes the greatest event in our people’s history. The final three plagues – swarms of locusts, absolute darkness, and the slaying of the firstborn – are visited upon the Egyptians because of Pharaoh’s continual refusal to let the Israelites leave Egypt.
God does not visit these scourges upon the Egyptians without purpose or without first seeking some alternative. Indeed, before each plague, God sends Moses and Aaron to Pharaoh in an effort to secure the peaceful release of the Israelites. Each time, Pharaoh refuses – well, that’s not exactly true. Pharaoh does offer to let some of the Israelites leave, but Moses does not accept, saying “We will all go, young and old: we will go with our sons and with our daughters.”
How extraordinary is Moses’ demand – no one goes unless we all go. The Torah portion tells us that 600,000 “men on foot” made the journey out of Egypt. Some biblical scholars estimate that 600,000 “men on foot” translates into a total community of around two million people – men on foot, older or infirmed men carried on animals or in carts, women, and children.
What would it take for the leadership in our Jewish world today to advocate like Moses – that no one be left behind? For people living with disabilities, it could mean a complete transformation of our Jewish institutions. After school religious schools and day schools that accommodate all students; synagogues with ramps into the building and onto the bimah; services interpreted for the deaf and hard of hearing; prayer books with large size print; and so many other steps done to celebrate each person and our diversity.
A few years ago, one of our adult members was living with advanced ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He had been the chanter of the first aliyah (the Torah text itself, not the blessing) on the first morning of Rosh Hashanah for several years in a row. As his disease progressed and his mobility was virtually gone, his brain and voice remained strong and vibrant. I so wanted Ken to chant Torah that Rosh Hashanah, which I (accurately) guessed would be his last. Our sanctuary remodeling wasn’t scheduled for another nine months, and our bimah was without a ramp. So rather than keeping Ken from this honor, we moved the Torah reading to him. We gave two others in the community the honor of holding the Torah up in front of Ken, and a third to hold the yad and move it as he chanted. The couple who had the aliyah were moved to tears, as was the rest of the congregation.
A few months later, a student with several learning disabilities and visual limits was preparing to become a bat mitzvah. She was good at memorizing the Torah text from her CD. But I wanted to be sure that she could read it from the scroll as well. She chanted from one of our infrequently used scrolls because it was large and she had an easier time seeing the words than she would have using our “regular” scroll. And months before her bat mitzvah, I took a picture of the text from the scroll itself, enlarged it, and printed it so that she could practice using a visual from which she could actually see. We also photocopied all of the prayers she would lead onto blue paper, the only color off of which she can read.
I am not Moses. And yet, my congregation leaves no one behind. Adults and students with disabilities are fully integrated into the life of the congregation. It’s not hard to do. It takes creativity and a will. Which is exactly what our tradition demands of us.
Rabbi Robin Nafshi has been the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Jacob in Concord, New Hampshire since 2010.