Thriving Like Isaac

March 29, 2023Rabbi Deborah Goldmann

Living most of my life in a hearing world – as a not-fully hearing person – has been my “normal” living experience. I don’t know any other way of being. I suspect there is a different way of living because everyone around me tells me so – they imagine that my life must be so hard, how I must cope (what are my choices??). At one point, I tried to connect to the Deaf community. Between not being fluent in American Sign Language and being able to live in the hearing world, I didn’t feel welcome – although I learned a lot about myself as a less-than-fully-hearing person in a hearing world. A few years ago, when I went from hard of hearing to deaf, I decided that I would be just that, “deaf” without the capital “D”. I am now a deaf person living in a hearing world (as opposed to a Deaf person with connections to the Deaf community).

Even if my life is normal to me, I have always sought others who would understand the realities of my life. For example, people assume that removing my artificial ears equals deep silence. It actually makes me a heavy sleeper because of the constant white noise of tinnitus.

I am like Adam before Eve. Adam didn’t ask for a partner. After creating the first human, God stated that “it [was] not good” for this new creature to be alone (Genesis 2:18). God created a companion to help and challenge the new human.

Consciously or unconsciously, we still seek out people who will understand us well enough to support and challenge us. We feel a connection to those with whom we share similar experiences. We can better relate to those who understand and know what we have been through.

I grew up hard of hearing and am now deaf. I have mostly lived and thrived in hearing communities. As much as I appreciate my many blessings, there is also a thread of loneliness as no one in my immediate circle relates to my experience.

I am always subconsciously seeking people who share my experience. Someone in whom I can see myself. From the moment my husband shared his grandmother’s theory that our patriarch Isaac might have had a developmental disability, I was hooked on this interpretation. The idea of Isaac living with a disability gave me comfort and I felt a little less alone.

Isaac is one of our three patriarchs. He stands tall in the memory of our tradition. And yet… Isaac never appears alone. Others choose for and manipulate him. The narrative implies that his family and community do not trust Isaac to do things independently. His parents are highly overprotective, which we see when Sarah demands that Abraham send Ishmael and Hagar, Ishmael's mother, into the desert in response to Ishmael mistreating Isaac. Abraham is overly involved in finding a wife for Isaac (the only major biblical figure who uses a matchmaker). When the time comes to bury their father, Ishmael knows that Isaac cannot bury Abraham alone, so he returns to help. Isaac is described as though he is incapable of acting independently.

Seeing Isaac through the lens of disability helps us better understand his character and role in our history. The possibility that Isaac was disabled reminds us that there have always been people who need accommodations. That said, whatever made Isaac different from others did not disqualify him from being a patriarch; he is an essential link in the chain of our ancestors.

In Genesis 27, we encounter the conclusion to Isaac’s extraordinary life. As a blind old man, those who know him best attempt to trick him. Isaac’s wife and younger son seek to take advantage of Isaac’s disabilities so that he gives his elder son’s birthright to the younger Jacob. Despite their intentions of trickery, the text suggests that Isaac understood what was happening and chose to participate in the charade as a co-conspirator:

Which of my sons are you? (Genesis 27:18)

How did you prepare the meal so quickly? (Genesis 27:20)

Isaac is very suspicious. Isaac’s keen senses of hearing, smell, and touch enabled him to discern between his two sons. Before granting Jacob the birthright, he says as much, pausing to reflect before obliging his son’s request.

“The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.” (Genesis 27:22)

In going along with Rebekah and Jacob’s plan, Isaac deliberately takes a course of action that alters Jewish tradition. By allowing his wife and son to believe they had fooled him, Isaac upended tradition. Isaac possessed an ability to discern the right course of action, perhaps not despite his disability, but because of it.

If Isaac lived his life with a disability, it went unnoticed by many generations. While I’m not a patriarch or have a centuries-long legacy, I can relate to having a disability that goes unnoticed. Sometimes I wear a face mask that has the word “DEAF” spelled out in bold pink letters, or a bright pink shirt with a huge yellow sign that says “DEAF.” Even with bright colors and huge letters, people cannot always see what feels so obvious to me. Instead of telling people I am deaf, I’ve learned to tell people what I need, whether that is to slow their speech, speak louder, or communicate in writing.

When I wear my DEAF shirt or mask, I inevitably meet someone else who has hearing loss or can sign. My pink gear doesn’t always get the right people’s attention, but it does build connections!

Calling a person with a disability an “inspiration” is a veiled insult. With that in mind, I don’t see Isaac as an inspiration; I see myself. What’s more, I see us both thriving in our communities with our disabilities.

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