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For All Whose Hearts are Moved

For All Whose Hearts are Moved

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner speaking at Jewish Disability Advocacy Day

Let us ground the sacred work of this day in ancient wisdom of our Torah, and give thanks to the Holy One for the gift of life, insight, and ability to advocate for a more just and inclusive society.

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu melech ha-Olam, asher kideshanu b’mitzvotav

v’tzivanu la-asok b’divrei Torah.

Thank you God for making us more holy through your commandments

And for commanding us to engage in study of the Torah

This week we read parashat Terumah, which recounts the building of the mishkan, the tabernacle in the wilderness.  The Israelites have risen up from their bondage in Egypt, crossed the Sea of Reeds, and arrived at Sinai.  Standing as one, they have received the Torah from God and speaking as one community they say “na'aseh, v’nishma” “all this we will do and we will hear,” and have entered into the covenant. 

Now, they prepare to journey forward into the land of Israel.  In the first verse of our parasha God speaks to Moses, saying:

Daber el-B’nai Yisrael v’yikchu li terumah me’et kol-ish Asher yidvanu libo tikchu et trumati

“Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: Bring a gift for me, from everyone whose heart is so moved…”

And then a few verses later God explains:

V-asu li mikdash v’shochanti b’tocham

“Make for me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them”

Our text goes on to tell the story of the overwhelming response of the Israelites who brought forward so many gifts, offerings, and objects, that the leaders had to ask them to stop.  The text describes in loving detail the construction of this portable sanctuary which would become the sacred receptacle to house the tablets of the law, and the space for gathering and worshiping the Holy one that the Israelites would bring along their journey to the Promised Land.

Within our parasha, there are some timeless teachings that ground our work today.

First, the opening verse is a reminder that Jewish life is essentially intended to be inclusive. The contributions for the building of the mishkan are to be brought forward by everyone whose heart is so moved.  Everyone whose heart is moved. That is the only criteria for participation. This is a reminder to us today, that anyone and everyone who is stirred, who is moved, who is inspired belongs among us.  We should remember, this criteria may be invisible, and hard to discern.  Souls whose hearts are moved may not have the ability to articulate their passion with words; think of the many people with disabilities in our communities and congregations whose passion for Jewish life is expressed differently.  I stand before you, a public speaker whose passion is expressed through words; but humbly reminded by the legacy of Moses who had a speech impediment – we know a heart moved to contribute can be experienced through the wordless song, a laugh or a cry, or even silence.

Second, the text reminds us that God dwells not in the physical space itself, but among people.  Build for me a sanctuary, God says, so I can dwell among them not it.  The physical structure simply serves as a gathering place for human beings so that they can come together, and in their coming together, God can be present.  This text is an agitational reminder that the entire point of building structures is to bring people inside, not keep them out.  Accessibility can not be an afterthought, it's the entire point!  For if people cannot enter, than neither can God.  R’ Menachem Mendl of Kotz, the Kotzker Rabbi was famously asked “where does God dwell?” He replied, “wherever people let God in.”  Our parasha reminds us that only if our sanctuaries are accessible for people, can they then be accessible to the Holy One.

So though we gather this day, here in Washington, our nation’s Capital, in order to advocate for accessibility and inclusion for all people, our advocacy begins at home. Our text reminds us that our own synagogues, schools, and institutions must be accessible in every way – overcoming obvious physical challenges, but also the more subtle hidden cultural obstacles as well.  So many of you in this room have been the pioneers, the prophets and advocates who have transformed the Jewish community and our institutions to hear God’s call and be accessible to all whose hearts are moved.  Thank you!

And though our work begins at home, every year we return here to hold our elected officials accountable to the enduring wisdom of Jewish tradition and insure that all people with disabilities are fully included in American society.

We have much to be proud of since we gathered last year, a year in which we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act:

  • 34 States have enacted legislation pursuant to the ABLE Act, our priority in 2014
  • Social Security funds were rebalanced at the end of 2015 to ensure that those receiving Social Security Disability Insurance will not see a 20% cut to their modest benefit at the end of 2016, our priority in 2015
  • The Every Student Succeeds Act was passed to replace No Child Left Behind. This legislation increased reporting standards on school achievement of people with disabilities and required states to report on bullying incidents.

25 years after the ADA’s passage, we will not rest or stop because:

  • 28% of all Americans with a disability live in poverty, and the unemployment rate for people living with disabilities is more than double the national rate.
  • About 400,000 people currently work in sheltered workshops. Here, they do not interact with people without disabilities and are paid legally below the minimum wage. According to a study conducted by the National Council on Disability only 5% of sheltered workshop employees left to get a job in the community.

So today we will fight for the passage of the Transition to Independence Act (S. 1604), the Recognize, Assist, Include, Support, and Engage (RAISE) Family Caregiver Act (H.R. 3099) and the Lifespan Respite Care Reauthorization Act (H.R. 3913).

As we gather this morning let us join together in the Shecheheyanu, a reminder of the significance of this day, one where we join together to move our own communities and the U.S. Congress to action.

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, 
shehechehyanu, v'kiy'manu, v'higianu laz'man hazeh.

Our praise to You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of all: 
for giving us life, sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this season.


These remarks were originally at Jewish Disability Advocacy Day, a cornerstone event of Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month.

Published: 2/11/2016