As we approach Purim and take our annual look at its exciting tale, we meet the recently-exiled Jewish nation feeling out of sorts and unwanted, basically just doing their best to fit in.
Some nine years after participating in the king’s gala, Haman points out to Achashverosh that this nation is “spread out and distanced among the nations…” “They are disjointed and dissimilar,” said Haman, “and [therefore] it is not worth…leaving them [alone].” In other words, Haman is saying about the Jews: Stop trying to fit in. Your differences are quite noticeable, and we don’t like them.
So what is it about differences that makes us so uncomfortable? Why were we even trying to fit in to begin with?
While much ink has been spilled in the pursuit of explaining this most basic of human traits, there are those who believe it is largely a function of conditioning (when parents offer acknowledgement for their baby’s every achievement, the baby grows up to need that acceptance and recognition), while others say it is an outgrowth of the survival instinct (having a welcoming and supportive clan certainly aids in an individual’s chances of survival). Either way, it is something of a given; we want to be wanted. And we’ll do almost anything to achieve that.
People with disabilities are no different in this regard. Often lacking a more highly-regarded role in their respective communities or demographics, they will, at times, even invent an identity so as to fit in. It is not at all uncommon to hear such individuals referred to by their propensity for knowing everyone’s name, their obsession with birthdays or bus schedules, or the baseball hat they wear at all times. There is also the all-too-common role of “assistant gabbai/chazan/kiddush setter-upper.” Interestingly, in this regard, Rabbi Berel Wein notes that the very Jewish phenomenon of the gabbai sheni, the town vekker or the matchmaker comes from the dearth of proper employment available to “the shtetl Yid.” Even more than the pain of hunger and uncertainty, the unemployed had no identity; they offered no contribution to society and therefore they or their townspeople created these identities for them, so as to give them a place.
Of course, as the Purim story progresses, we reach a turning point at which Mordechai tells Esther “Who knows? Maybe it is (precisely) for this reason that you were chosen for royalty.” In other words, he is telling her “You have a place. You can contribute. Your presumed lack of qualifications does not amount to disqualification. To the contrary: now is your time to shine. Just be you.”
It is then that Esther, mind made up, replies: “Go and gather all of the Jews.” Every single person has what to contribute. The differences which may have divided us thus far, must be viewed as individual strengths to unite and empower us. Their unity and collective contribution is what Esther wants backing her. She continues, “…and thus, [as a member of this unified force], I will go to the king [even though I am] not qualified.”
No one can do everything, but everyone can do something. Differences, when perceived and treated as significant, get us into trouble. On the other hand, when they are acknowledged as just another element of the human condition, they are what make our world colorful.
As Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM) coincides with Black History month, I often think of the immortal words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whose dream was for his “four little children to one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” The goal of inclusion is not to deny differences, but to acknowledge that those differences that inevitably, undeniably exist don’t speak to character, ability or value.
Amalek has always been driven by a desire to deny uniqueness and, we, in turn, have been commanded to destroy those forces that deny what makes us special.
Let’s not deny differences in the name of inclusion. Let’s use this month of inclusion awareness in tandem with the lessons of Purim to focus on an inclusion that celebrates differences and doesn’t trade them in for feigned uniformity. No, we aren’t all the same, even if we are usually alike. But our united efforts despite our differences—and even because of them—can enable us to attain our collective goals.
Avi Ganz is the Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Elaine and Norm Brodsky Yeshivat Darkaynu, the only Modern Orthodox year-in-Israel experience for young men with special needs. He lives with his wife and five children in Gush Etzion.