Intentionally Teaching a Message of Inclusion – “An Ugly Encounter”

To be truly successful, inclusion of individuals with disabilities must be “what we do”. When we lead by example, modeling inclusion within our faith communities, we let our constituents know that it is our expectation that they will treat one another with dignity and respect.  

Lead by example, model inclusion; Removing the Stumbling Block

Sometimes, however, that’s not quite enough. Sometimes this belief and commitment doesn't fully move from expectation to good intentions to action. This is when the value of inclusion must be intentionally taught.

Judaism is rich with text that illustrates the value of an inclusive community.

Here are a few that are fairly well known: 
Do not look at the container but at what it contains. ~Pirkei Avot 4:27

Every member of the people of Israel is obligated to study Torah – whether one is rich or poor, physically able or with physical disability. ~Maimonides, Mishne Torah, chapter 10

"But Moses said to God, 'Please, God, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.' And God said to him, 'Who gives man speech?  Who makes him dumb or deaf, seeing or blind?  Is it not I?'" ~Exodus 4:10-11

You shall not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind.  ~Leviticus 19:14 (I hope that you recognize this last one as the basis for the title of this blog.)

But there is another, less studied text that is a wonderful example of the value of disability inclusion (we have used it with our teens in a variety of ways):

From the Talmud: “An Ugly Encounter” (Ta’anit 20a-b)
Once Rabbi Eleazar son of Rabbi Simeon was coming from the house of his teacher, and he was riding leisurely by the riverside and was feeling happy and elated because he had studied much Torah.
A person should always be gentle as the reed and never be unyielding as the cedar; Removing the Stumbling BlockThere chanced to meet him an exceedingly ugly man who greeted him, “Peace be upon you, Sir.” He, however, did not return his salutation but instead said to him, “Raca, how ugly you are. Are all your fellow citizens as ugly as you are?” The man replied, “I do not know, but go and tell the craftsman who made me, “How ugly the vessel which you have made.”
When Rabbi Elezear realized that he had done wrong he prostrated himself before the man and said to him, “I submit myself to you, forgive me.” The man replied, “I will not forgive you until you go to the craftsman who made me and say to him, “How ugly is the vessel which you have made.”
Rabbi Elezear walked behind the man until he reached his native city. When his fellow citizens came out to meet him greeting him with the words, “Peace be upon you O Teacher, O Master,” the man asked them, “Whom are you addressing thus?”
They replied, “The man who is walking behind you…he is a man greatly learned in Torah.” The man replied, “For your sakes I will forgive him, but only on the condition that he does not act in the same manner in the future.”
Soon after this Rabbi Eleazar, son of Rabbi Simeon, expounded thus: A person should always be gentle as the reed and never be unyielding as the cedar. 
There are a great number of lessons to be learned from this text. First, is the power of one’s language; we must realize that the way we speak to one another truly matters. I also learn that “ugliness”, like each of our physical traits, is a gift from God (“tell the craftsman who made me and say ‘how ugly is the vessel you have made’”) and should be celebrated rather than disdained.  

But there is another, subtle message that you might miss upon your first reading. Go back to the beginning and you will find the line, “he was riding leisurely by the riverside and was feeling happy and elated…” While we might take this at face value, we might also interpret this as Rabbi Eleazar, riding along the side of the river, not seeing another man, but rather his own reflection. How powerful is this image as we each must struggle to see not only the beauty in the world around us but the beauty in ourselves. Maybe this “ugly encounter” is one in which Rabbi Eleazar confronts his own insecurities and lack of confidence. This is the ultimate message of acceptance. To accept oneself is the first, most critical step in learning how to accept and celebrate differences in others.

What do you think? How do you interpret this text? How will you use it to teach disability inclusion and acceptance?

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