True Leadership Knows No Limits: People with Disabilities and Parashat B'shalach, Shabbat Shira

February 6, 2012Ian Hainline

This post was written by RAC Legislative Assistant Ian Hainline as part of the Union for Reform Judaism’s “Ten Minutes of Torah” series.

It may only be February, but the climax of (at least my childhood's version) of the story of Passover is the subject of this week's Torah portion. Moses, in a scene worthy of any movie, leads the Israelites out of Egypt and into the Red Sea-with Pharaoh and his army in hot pursuit.

Excellent chase scene aside, the drama of the portion comes as the Israelites' faith is tested time and again. With Moses at the helm, by day they are guided by the Amud Anan, translated by some as a pillar of smoke, and at night B'Amud Eish , the pillar of fire to light their way.  They are led to the banks of the Red Sea. The Israelites follow these pillars and their new leader with blind faith. Yet, once they are fully freed, the grumbling quickly begins. Calls of "I'm hungry" are soon met with manna from on high - enough to feed each family for a day, and two portions for Shabbat. But despite the plentiful food, cries of hunger are, in time, joined by cries of thirst. So Moses is commanded by God to strike a rock, from which water gushes. At this place, Massah and Meribah, where despite bearing witness to miracle upon miracle, the Israelites tried God, saying "Is the Eternal present among us or not?" (Exodus 17:7).

At the end of the portion, the people of Amalek wage battle with the Israelites. Moses observed the battle from a hill nearby, and "whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; but whenever he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses' hand grew heavy" (Exodus 17:11-12). Moses' initial strength echoes the total faith of the Israelites, but as their faith shook, so too did Moses lose his strength, with bloody consequences, and the battle hanging in the balance.

The portion offers a meditation on the importance of faith, but is also testimony of Moses' ability as a leader. Time and again, he is faced with trials and challenges to his leadership. In providing for the welfare of the Israelites, Moses is constantly negotiating with God on their behalf, helping meet their needs as best he can. In making the most of trying times, Moses provides an example of compassion and advocacy that any leader would be wise to follow.

It's almost easy to forget that Moses was doing this all with a disability-a speech impediment.

We often choose our leaders based upon their ability to articulate their ideals. During every campaign season, we're reminded of the importance of the people understanding the way in which a leader proposes facing the crises and issues of the day. Moses himself expressed trepidation about his ability to speak on behalf of the Hebrew people.  When God first told him to go before Pharaoh and ask for the slaves' freedom, Moses' response was "who am I?" And yet Moses was able to provide for his people in the face of profound insecurity-shortages of food, water, and shelter, and lead them to the Promised Land.

This weekend, as we begin to celebrate Jewish Disability Awareness Month we can reflect on God's greatness, in rescuing the Israelites, or God's capacity to provide, feeding the Israelites for 40 years in the desert. But we must also remember that, like Moses, each and every one of us has some purpose, large or small, no matter the obstacles that have been erected in our path. There is more to anyone, from the greatest leader to the youngest child, than their physical appearance or abilities. All people are created in the image of God and all are more than their disabilities.

When we last left the passage, the Israelites were in the midst of battle with Amalek, and Moses' arms were growing heavy. But Moses was not alone on the hilltop. Two others, Aaron and Hur, were with him that day. As Moses' strength waned, Aaron and Hur sat Moses down. Each took one of his arms and held them aloft until "Joshua overwhelmed the people of Amalek with the sword" (Exodus 17:13).

Though not all of us are born as Moses-whether with a disability or destined to be a great leader-we all have the capacity to be an Aaron or a Hur. In other's moments of need, we can be there to hold one another aloft, and help carry the day.

Ian Hainline is an Eisendrath Legislative Assistant at the Religious Action Center. His home congregation is  Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, NC. 

Jewish Disability Awareness Month is an effort on the part of the Jewish community to ensure the full inclusion of people with disabilities in our society. Our goal as a Reform Movement across North America is full participation in the spiritual, educational, and communal aspects of synagogue life for people living with disabilities and their families. Click here for more information.

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