Special needs adoption from a Jewish perspective.

Special needs adoption from a Jewish perspective.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Haftorah Beam - Tazria

Last year, this was part of a double-parsha, but this year it stands on its own.  The haftorah, however, is a special reading, observing the beginning of the month of Nissan and anticipating the Festival of Passover.

This reading mostly discusses the New Moon sacrifices, as this is the first commandment given to the Israelites.  I was intrigued by this passage, though:

1 Thus said the Lord God: The gate of the inner court which faces east shall be closed on the six working days; it shall be opened on the sabbath day and it shall be opened on the day of the new moon. 2 The prince shall enter by way of the vestibule outside the gate, and shall attend at the gatepost while the priests sacrifice his burnt offering and his offering of well-being; he shall then bow low at the threshold of the gate and depart. The gate, however, shall not be closed until evening. 3 The common people shall worship before the Lord on sabbaths and new moons at the entrance of the same gate.....8 When the prince enters, he shall come in by way of the vestibule of the gate, and he shall go out the same way.
9 But on the fixed occasions, when the common people come before the Lord, whoever enters by the north gate to bow low shall leave by the south gate; and whoever enters by the south gate shall leave by the north gate. They shall not go back through the gate by which they came in, but shall go out by the opposite one. 10And as for the prince, he shall enter with them when they enter and leave when they leave.
Interestingly, when the "prince" comes to observe the sacrifice, he bows low and returns the way he came.  The commoners, however, go through the inner court and leave by way of the opposite gate.  Seems like they get a more intimate experience of the sacrifice than the prince does!

It seems that the prince, who may be jaded by the pomp and circumstance of the Temple worship, needs to maintain some distance from the inner court, in order to keep a reverent perspective.  The commoners, however, get to experience this only on occasion, and thus are permitted the full experience.  The first mitzvah is one of democratization, where the prince bows low at the gate, and continues to bow low as the commoners pass him to go to the opposite gate.  The prince is thus reminded that even as he bows to G*d through the sacrifice, he is also bowing to the people.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Do you wanna build a snowman? ("Frozen" spoiler alert)

Olaf the snowman.  Even the name says: "Oh, laugh!"

We first meet him when Elsa and Anna are little, and Elsa speaks for him with a stereotyped voice, "I'm Olaf, and I love warm hugs!" -- he is the focus of Anna's yearning for the lost closeness with Elsa as they grow up.

We almost miss it when Elsa creates him again, among her flurries on the way up North Mountain as she "lets it go". (at 1:06)  Even she doesn't realize what she has created, and abandons him, in favor of the grandness of her Ice Palace....

We are not quite sure what to make of him when we meet him again, still wandering aimlessly in the snow, just in the right time and place to lead Anna and Kristoff to Elsa's palace, the only creature who knows exactly where it is.

He is the snowman who loves warm hugs so much, he dreams of summer.

He is goofy, funny-looking, plump, and doesn't quite get it.  But he loves fully and carelessly ("Some people are worth melting for.")  And when it comes right down to it, he actually DOES get it, where it really matters.  Am I the only one who sees Olaf as having Down syndrome?

And instead of melting when summer does finally return to Arendelle, he is saved by Elsa, who creates for him his own personal flurry.  The very powers which were so frightening are exactly what she uses to sustain Olaf.  And she does it in a way that manifests inclusion at its best.  She truly understands being isolated by difference, and knows exactly how to give him the support he needs.  Olaf is actually able to enjoy summertime just as he had dreamed, with the protective flurry that allows him to participate without losing his identity.  He doesn't just love warm hugs, he loves flowers, and dancing, and sharing the fullness of life with his friends.

So..... Do you wanna build a snowman?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

LGBT and Down syndrome

I have been an LGBT ally as far back as I have been aware of LGBT issues. I have always believed that people's consensual, private lives are nobody else's business.  Religions may have something to say about it, but a person's religion is not really anybody else's business either.  If a person's religion conflicts with anything else about their lives, it is up to them how to resolve that, and different people can and will make different choices.

Still, I feel that I have, if anything, become a stauncher supporter of LGBT issues since becoming involved in the disability world, and Down syndrome in particular.  I feel like there are strong parallels there, which I would like to explore in greater depth.

Right off the top, we can see that both LGBT and people with T21 are marginalized minorities.  Both groups have made great headway in mainstream society, but there is still a great backdrop of prejudice, where "retarded" and "gay" are tolerated insults where racial and other slurs would not be.  Both are conditions which are present at birth, and both have been met with emphatic efforts at "normalization" under the guise of "love".  In both cases, a part of the human psyche works differently than the mainstream. In T21 it is cognition, in LGBT is is sexual attraction.   In both cases, what is called for is not "fixing", but helping individuals participate fully in society on their own terms.  Individuals who wish to be seen as whole people, not defined in terms of their biology. Individuals who wish to love and contribute without the artificial, disabling barriers erected by a conformist society.

Two days ago was World Down Syndrome Day. In honor of it, I'd like to share this video:

Be happy!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Haftorah Beam - Shemini/Parah

Instead of the usual Haftorah for this Parsha, we read a special Haftorah for Shabbat Parah, so named after the account of the Red Heifer, which is read at this time.  This is the first Shabbat in the preparatory sequence leading up to Passover.

This reading, like most Haftarot, echoes the Torah portion.  In the Torah reading, we learn about Nadav and Avihu bringing an "unorthodox" sacrifice, and the steps which Aaron and Moses had to take to repair the spiritual damage. Finally, the Israelites are taught the rules of kashrut, in a parallel practice to the "kosher" and "non-kosher" sacrifices.  The Haftorah follows a similar theme on a national scale. When the people have strayed, they are exiled from the Land of Israel.  However, in order to avoid this "reflecting badly" on G*d, He redeems them -- emphasizing that this is done not for their merit, but His glory -- and restores them to the land.  Now they are instructed to follow the commandments in order to merit this redemption:

22 Say to the House of Israel: Thus said the Lord God: Not for your sake will I act, O House of Israel, but for My holy name, which you have caused to be profaned among the nations to which you have come. 23 I will sanctify My great name which has been profaned among the nations — among whom you have caused it to be profaned. And the nations shall know that I am the Lord — declares the Lord God — when I manifest My holiness before their eyes through you. 24 I will take you from among the nations and gather you from all the countries, and I will bring you back to your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean: I will cleanse you from all your uncleanness and from all your fetishes. 26 And I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you: I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh; 27 and I will put My spirit into you. Thus I will cause you to follow My laws and faithfully to observe My rules. 28Then you shall dwell in the land which I gave to your fathers, and you shall be My people and I will be your God.
We see here the progression of the relationship between G*d and His people. At first, He is angry with us for straying. In His anger, He seems concerned only for how we are making Him look bad...  So He reaches out unilaterally to redeem us, to bring us back to our land, and to set us back on the right path. In so doing, the relationship is restored: "you shall be My people and I will be your God" -- "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine".

I recently came across this article by a Christian rejecting the "love the sinner but hate the sin" meme, not just as it is often used in connection with homosexuality, but in general.  Christians often see G*d's freely offered redemption through Jesus's sacrifice as a contrast to a vengeful Old Testament G*d.  But here we see that the notion of G*d extending "grace" is alive and well in the Old Testament, albeit couched in the notion of "I'm doing this for MY OWN GLORY, not because y'all are so deserving, cuz yer not!"  Interestingly, this may be a more realistic model for us imperfect (and often vengeful) humans to follow. In our relationships, can we in fact "put a new spirit" into our relationships, without waiting for others to "fix" themselves? Not because they have "earned" it, but because it is the right thing to do? If nothing else, because doing so would make us look better than being petty?

Sunday, March 16, 2014


The Festival of Purim is traditionally observed with 4 commandments:

1. Mishteh - the festive revelry, with costumes, sweets, and drinking (for the adults)
2. Mishloach Manot - exchange of treats among friends
3. Matanot la-Evyonim - charitable giving to the poor
4. Megilla - reading of the Purim scroll (Book of Esther)

Our family enjoyed a delightful Purim Party at our shul, where all 4 were in evidence (except for the alcohol.... that was last night!)

One particular excerpt from the Megilla really spoke to me.  In the 4th chapter, when Mordechai pleads with Esther to speak up to the king on behalf of the Jewish people, she is afraid.  Speaking to the King without being summoned is a capital offense!  This risk is very real.  She does not want to do it. And Mordechai persists:
13 and Mordechai said to relay to Esther, "Do not think that you will escape [the fate of] all the Jews by being in the king's palace. 14 For if you will remain silent at this time, relief and salvation will come to the Jews from another source, and you and the house of your father will be lost. And who knows if it is not for just such a time that you reached this royal position."  (emphasis mine)
At each juncture in our lives, we can see our choices as risks or as opportunities.  The risks refer to all the ways that things can go wrong.  The opportunities are not simply the flip-side of that, the things that could go right, but the ways in which our life up until that point has prepared us for this.  Wherever we are is our "royal position" for taking on the "king".

The Jewish website aish.com featured this video on exactly this theme. Enjoy!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Haftorah Beam - Tzav/Zachor

The Torah reading for this week was from Parshat Tzav -- the same one my daughter did for her Bat Mitzvah last year.  The Haftorah, however, is a special reading ("Zachor" - "Remember") for the Shabbat preceeding the festival of Purim, which began this evening. The "usual" reading for this Parsha is actually read only 3 times in the next 12 years....  It is a reading from Jeremiah, which concludes with the exhortation:
Chapter 9    22 Thus said the Lord:
    Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom;
    Let not the strong man glory in his strength;
    Let not the rich man glory in his riches.
    23 But only in this should one glory:
    In his earnest devotion to Me.
    For I the Lord act with kindness,
    Justice, and equity in the world;
    For in these I delight
Instead, we read this selection from Samuel, which presages the story of Purim (Book of Esther):
2 "Thus said the Lord of Hosts: I am exacting the penalty for what Amalek did to Israel, for the assault he made upon them on the road, on their way up from Egypt.
The nation of Amalek represents the perennial enemies of Israel.  Tradition has it that villains from Haman to Hitler hailed from this stock, though many interpret this as a spiritual rather than genetic linkage.

The main gist of the Haftorah is King Saul's disobedience in his campaign against Amalek.  He had been commanded:
3Now go, attack Amalek, and proscribe all that belongs to him. Spare no one, but kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and asses!"

But, upon emerging victorious, he proceeds instead:

7 Saul destroyed Amalek from Havilah all the way to Shur, which is close to Egypt, 8 and he captured King Agag of Amalek alive. He proscribed all the people, putting them to the sword; 9 but Saul and the troops spared Agag and the best of the sheep, the oxen, the second-born, the lambs, and all else that was of value. They would not proscribe them; they proscribed only what was cheap and worthless.
(emphasis mine)
Much is made out of the sparing of King Agag.  Apparently, in the one day before Saul repented and executed Agag, the latter was able to "perpetuate his seed" which would spell trouble for Israel forever after.  However, it is not indicated that the livestock was ever properly disposed of.  Presumably, it was kept as war booty, in defiance of explicit divine commandment.  In fact, the rebuke itself stated:
"Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
As much as in obedience to the Lord's command?
Surely, obedience is better than sacrifice,
Compliance than the fat of rams.
23 For rebellion is like the sin of divination,
Defiance, like the iniquity of teraphim.
Because you rejected the Lord's command,
He has rejected you as king."
(emphasis mine)
The rebuke does not mention King Agag, but it mentions the sacrificial livestock 3 times. Do not save the spoils of war under the pretext of using them for the Temple service -- your obedience to the commandments is the true sacrifice G*d seeks.  In fact, this is the sin which is corrected by Mordechai, who refuses to bow down to Haman and his idols in spite of the threatened consequences.  Mordechai (and later Esther) realizes that expedience does not justify rejecting G*d.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Haftorah Beam - VaYikra

This parsha, opening the book of Leviticus, is about connection with G*d.  But what happens when the connection is disrupted? The haftorah addresses this theme with G*d bemoaning the people disconnecting from the divine, and in turn reaching out to reconnect even as the people stray.

כה  אָנֹכִי אָנֹכִי הוּא מֹחֶה פְשָׁעֶיךָ, לְמַעֲנִי:  וְחַטֹּאתֶיךָ, לֹא אֶזְכֹּר.25 I, even I, am He that blotteth out thy transgressions for Mine own sake; and thy sins I will not remember.
כו  הַזְכִּירֵנִי, נִשָּׁפְטָה יָחַד; סַפֵּר אַתָּה, לְמַעַן תִּצְדָּק.26 Put Me in remembrance, let us plead together; declare thou, that thou mayest be justified.

Memory plays an interesting role in establishing connection.  The sins/transgressions are not remembered, but the other (in this case, G*d) is remembered for His own sake.

Likewise, watching the progression of justice in these two verses we see that first G*d forgives, then G*d and the people judge together, so that at the end the people may be justified.

Without dwelling on whether we are to see ourselves in the role of G*d or the people, this seems to be a recipe for conflict resolution and reconnection between individuals:

1. Forgiveness of offenses.  This, counterintuitively, benefits the forgiver rather than the forgiven.
2. Actually forgetting unimportant offenses (letting go of grudges), which paves the way to move ahead.
3. Remembering the other for his/her own sake, and especially, seeing the other as the image of G*d
4. Building a common narrative, by
5. Listening to the other's point of view, and
6. Seeking to see the merit therein

Let us keep this recipe in mind as we find disconnections in our life and seek to heal them.


In discussing this post, I was asked "She is very high-functioning, isn't she?"  I kind of evaded the question, since "functioning" labels are falling out of favor in the disability community.  I tried to address it on the level of multiple intelligences, which have also come to replace a linear view of IQ for neurotypical populations.  That didn't really go anywhere.  I finally said "I don't know her, I don't KNOW what she is like beyond what her mom is writing here."  But that wasn't satisfying either.

The simple answer is "Yes, she is high-functioning."

However, that simple answer is wrong.   It is precisely the point of the post that the designation of "functioning" is predicated on how said functioning is both supported and assessed.  Ascribing the label to the person him/herself assumes that it is a static quantity independent of context.  Many autistic individuals present as extremely "low-functioning" until they sit down with a keyboard and express themselves, and are able to create for themselves an environment which allows them to function.  Likewise, many people with Down syndrome present very differently when therapy, education, and community inclusion allow them to participate fully in society.  The child in the above post was written off by various teachers and therapists at different times, only to blossom when the appropriate supports were made available. In many cases, labeling someone as "low-functioning" is an excuse for not providing these kinds of supports.  Conversely, labeling someone as "high-functioning" is used to exclude them from exemplifying the benefits of supports. (E.g. "Sure, she is able to access the curriculum -- she is high-functioning!")

This is precisely what makes the field of cognitive disability so exciting -- we really DON'T KNOW what "functioning level" is to be "expected" of any given individual -- no matter how disabled they currently appear to be.  People are shattering one glass ceiling after another when appropriate supports are established.  All we can do is treat each person as an individual and work to create inclusive contexts so that everyone is able to "function".

Sunday, March 2, 2014


It is so easy, when trying to convince someone of our position, to fall into the language of "right" and "wrong".  Clearly, we believe that our position is "right" and the other is "wrong".  However, that language easily slips from an assessment of facts to a moral/ethical judgement of "Right" vs. "Wrong".  Thinking about this recently reminded me of the following scene from the movie "Wreck-It Ralph", about a video-game villain who wishes to be loved rather than hated:

Just because I think you are wrong, doesn't mean I have to think you are Wrong.

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