Meaning through Responsibility
I'm reading a great book by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks called 'Not in God's Name; Confronting Religion and Violence', In the book, Rabbi Sacks describes how as we gain knowledge exponentially faster and faster, we seem to be losing our sense of meaning. As we understand how things work, we lose our understanding of why things work and why we are here.
This week's Torah portion is Mishpatim. This portion describes many laws that we must obey. These laws include things such as setting slaves free after 7 years to not farming ones land for a year every 7 years. While these laws may not be applicable to us today, I was reminded how important rules and regulations are to giving meaning and importance to our lives. Our Torah instructs us to do 613 mitzvahs in our life time. Tikkun Olam tells us we are here to repair the world and make it better. All of this tells us we are important, our family and friends need us, our community need us and the world needs us. These responsibilities gives meaning to our lives.
February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month. As most of you know, Denise and I are proud to be part of the Disability Community and active members of the Disability Movement since it began in the 1960's. Great Progress has been made. The world, especially in the United States, is much more accessible to people with disabilities. There are great laws protecting our rights. Educating children with disabilities is now guaranteed right. Employment discrimination is unlawful. Millions of dollars are spent annually trying to convince employers to hire people with disabilities. Despite all this, over 70% of people with disabilities are unemployed – the same percentage as when I grew up. Across the United States, 63 percent of students with disabilities graduated from high school in 2014 — a rate of graduation roughly 20 percent lower than the national average. Among jail inmates, 40% of whites and 55% of persons of two or more races reported having at least one disability,
As I compared the civil rights laws having to do with people with disabilities with the laws in the Torah, I saw one striking difference. Whereas most civil rights laws talk about what society and the government should or should not do for people with disabilities, Torah laws talks about what people should or should not do for God and society. Currently, for example, there are laws that say that if people with disabilities cannot work they can receive support services they need to survive. These paid support services are not available for people with disabilities who work. My attendant services costs over $50,000 annually. Few young adults with disabilities can afford that and thus do not seek employment. What if we had a law saying that all people are expected to work to the greatest extent they can, and get support services they need to do so? Another example might be that current law says that children with disabilities should have an Individualized Education Plan and support services needed to complete the Plan. What if the law said that all children are expected to get the best education they can, and get support services they need to do so?
Next Friday evening, Temple Sinai's Access Committee is sponsoring a panel with Jessica Lehman, Executive Director of San Francisco Senior and Disability Action, Susan Henderson, Executive Director of Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, and our own Rabbi Ruth Adar. They will be leading a discussion about broadening our social justice narrative to include disability rights. My hope is that in the near future, our social justice narrative may change to set high expectation that all people do their Tikkun Olam in a barrier-free environment with the tools and services they need.