Why Would the Rabbis Offer a Blessing for Our Differences?
Generally speaking, I'm not easily offended - but I did have a problem with this blessing the first time I stumbled upon it:
Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu, melech haolam, meshaneh ha briot.
Blessed be the One who created us differently.
How dare the Talmudic rabbis direct others to offer a blessing because I am different?
During Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, I consider this blessing. I now look beyond what seems like a judgment call toward others and embrace what I believe to be the rabbis’ intent in including it as part of our Jewish laws and customs.
I think the rabbis were being honest in acknowledging the discomfort that many feel upon encountering someone who is “different.” They truly saw that every human being was a creation of God, to be celebrated for what they can do, rather than as an object of focus for what they cannot do. To bless must be the initial response – rather than to judge – notwithstanding the challenges that poses to us, as individuals, and as members of families with disabilities and unique needs.
Professionally and personally, I have witnessed the beauty in how the “different” can bring together families, their friends and their Jewish communities. In particular, I was privileged to be part of the process as Aubree Bella became a bat mitzvah.
The news that they were finally going to have a baby girl was cause for excitement for David and Marla and their sons, Nathan and Eli. Aubree’s loving parents were deeply committed to raising a Jewish family. David taught in the religious school, while Marla was an instructor in the temple’s preschool. Both were passionate about inspiring children to embrace the Jewish faith, and both had received national recognition and awards for their achievements in Jewish education.
Aubree’s arrival, however, turned their world upside down and tested their faith.
Aubree’s birth was a difficult one, and it was far from certain that she would live. She had experienced severe trauma that resulted in multiple disabilities to her, including cerebral palsy and vision impairment. It was clear that should she survive, Aubree would face many difficulties.
Her devastated parents called me and asked that I visit Aubree at the hospital. Once there, I found their baby girl struggling to breathe, with tubes all over her body. But I also saw a beautiful soul, a gracious fighter determined to live.
As I held her hand, tears flowing down the faces of her weary and worried parents, I tried to find the right words. Ultimately, I offered this blessing: “May Aubree’s light shine and show us the way, as she is a child of God like all others. And, one day, she will have a bat Mitzvah.” Her parents chuckled, but I truly believed it.
And Aubree did survive. David and Marla quietly stepped away from synagogue life due to the overwhelming nature of their daughter’s needs and to grapple with the confusing feelings that came with the question of why this happened to their family – but at the appropriate time, they still entered Aubree in religious school. It was too important to this family not to do so.
Moving beyond the awkwardness and their desire to protect their child from stares and questions, Marla and David knew the synagogue community would welcome and accept their daughter. The clergy, too, were willing to work with their daughter – and looking forward to it.
As her bat mitzvah approached, Aubree watched patiently as I performed the sacred act of tying each of the four tzitzit (knots) of her tallit (prayer shawl). Every day, she talked about this tallit, which she knew was her very own; she was going to wear it at her bat mitzvah.
On the day she was called up to the Torah, Aubree squealed with delight as the tallit her family and friends had designed for her was draped over her shoulders. Aubree’s brothers and father chanted from the Torah while she stood proudly next to them, and the hankies and smiles throughout the synagogue signaled a triumph that had brought us all together in celebration and joy for Aubree, this special child of God.
Thinking of Aubree’s bat mitzvah, I am reminded of the intent behind the rabbis’ command to offer a blessing when seeing someone who is different: It is that we are all different and blessed, and we should accept others free of judgment. Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu, melech haolam, meshaneh ha briot - blessed be the One who created us differently, indeed.
February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, a unified initiative to raise disability awareness and support efforts to foster inclusion in Jewish communities worldwide. For important resources created by top disability experts, visit the Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center, created by the Union for Reform Judaism in partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation.
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