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Zak (Dvar Torah - SHOFTIM) 2009

Shoftim 08/22/2009 - Zak K. Bar Mitzvah

Shoftim is the Hebrew word for Judges. It is the Parasha that we will be reading in Hebrew from the torah scrolls today and is exactly the same portion that Jewish people will read as we observe the Sabbath, on this Saturday morning, all over the world.

I am sharing this with you today on behalf of Zak as we celebrate him becoming a Bar Mitzvah, the term used when a Jewish boy reaches the age of maturity at 13 and is recognized as a MAN in our Jewish faith from this day on.

We welcome many of Zak’s class mates, teachers and Special Needs friends, who observe other faiths and who have come to join us, in celebrating this major milestone.

Above our heads you will be able to admire one of the beautiful stained glass works of art representing the 12 tribes of Israel. The tribe of Dan that depicts a scale – usually signifying the balance of things – in this case is JUSTICE. Up on the bimah is an even more beautiful rendition, in my totally biased view, which Zak created. You will note that he has added a Magen Dovid on one side symbolizing his Jewish religion and the universal Autism Awareness ribbon on the other side. Sometimes that scale may shift as Autism is unpredictable but Judaism remains constant.

Due to the shifting, Autism is an issue that affects our entire family on a daily basis.

Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue

Justice, as expressed in Parashat Shoftim, is one of the eternal religious obligations of Judaism. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson (who has raised a son with Special Needs) made the following observations:

One cannot claim to love God and not be passionate about justice. That is the primary Jewish contribution to the human spirit.

We betray the broad heritage of Torah when we fail to recognize justice and righteousness as primary religious categories of Judaism.

This week’s Torah portion opens with the summons to "appoint judges and officials for your tribes . . . and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly" (Deuteronomy 16:18). With those words, and in countless other places, Moses insists that justice is an eternal religious obligation, at the very core of what it means to be a Jew. And that insistence is not restricted to biblical Judaism. The Rabbis of the Talmud and midrash were faithful proponents of the Sinai revelation here as well.

.. the midrash affirms the centrality of justice as a Jewish calling. We cannot consider ourselves pious Jews without a firm commitment to making the world a more just and righteous place.

How we treat the weakest in our midst (the "widow" and "orphan," to use the Torah's language) is still the irreplaceable core of our identity. None of this should imply that the other mitzvot are not important. All mitzvot, both ritual and ethical, reflect the commandments of God as understood by the Jewish people throughout history. All of them play an essential role in lifting us above our own self-centeredness and the despotism of time. All of the mitzvot act to refine character and to mold piety. All of the commandments express our passion for God and for our brit (our covenant) with God.

That having been said, it remains to assert — that ethics and a passion for justice remain the engines driving the entire Jewish enterprise. Rituals are essential and beautiful, but they remain frosting. Goodness, justice and decency form the base.

As the Torah insists, "Justice, justice shall you pursue."

Another “take” that Rabbi Artson presents is the old saying that apparently our Mishnah instructs, which is - “do not judge other people until you have stood in their shoes”.

Rabbi Teller shared a copy of another commentary with me that includes the following quotations:

“Do not ridicule or scorn the doing of justice for it is one of the foundations of the world. For the world is balanced on three things – on justice, on truth and on peace.”

The other is:

“Speak up for those who are silent, for the rights of the unfortunate. Speak out, judge justly, champion the poor and the needy”

I could add a personal story to help illustrate this last quotation and explain that this is the reason why it is so important for parents to speak out for their children who can not speak for themselves or who can not express their emotions or feelings in a way that most others would understand. Parents become their champions - but instead of giving you our family’s personal story, I decided that it would be more appropriate to paraphrase what a great author (Elie Wiesel) wrote: Titled – “Why I protest” – he tells the story of a righteous man who walked the streets protesting against injustice in his city. People made fun of him and made up all sorts of strange excuses why they did not or could not agree with him. Finally, a young person asked him why he continued his protest against evil and asking “can you not see that no one is paying attention to you.” He answered, “I’ll tell you why I continue. In the beginning I thought I would change people. Today, I know that I can not. Yet, if I continue my protest, at least I will prevent others from changing me.”

The commentary goes on to offer the question: “Why does Moses repeat the word tzedek, or “justice” in his statement "Justice, justice shall you pursue" - pointing out that the commandment could stand alone without the repetition, since the Torah does NOT often repeat words. Interpreters offer a number of explanations.

Some modern scholars suggest that the repetition is simply the way in which the ancient text forms an exclamation point or emphasizes an idea. By repeating the word tzedek, Moses underscores the importance of pursuing justice as a means of community survival.

Others argue that the term is repeated to convey the idea that the pursuit of justice is not only the responsibility of government, of judges within society, but also a mitzvah – an imperative – for each and every individual. One may NOT say, “let the courts worry about right and wrong or justice and injustice. I will remain silent.” For rabbinic interpreters of Torah and for the prophets, the pursuit of justice in society was paramount.

The Autism Acceptance Book : Being a friend to someone with Autism – a guide for educators in Jewish settings, lists some extremely appropriate subjects:

1) All children are made in the image of G-d

2) Everyone has a Special Gift

3) And “you shall teach ALL of G-d’s Children”

A few years ago someone in our local Houston community publicly stated that each child MUST be taught about their Judaism “at their own level” and went on to quote the Torah expressing this point. When it was pointed out that some but not all do receive a very limited exposure, the ball finally started to roll. We are fortunate that Houston has more Jewish education and inclusion today then ever before, but there are still more with needs, and we must continue to work together to do more. We must all speak out for those who cannot.

Earlier this year, my family had the honor of completing a letter in the new Torah that this congregation will be adding to our collection. Rabbi Moshe Druin, the sofer also known as the Torah scribe, mentioned that the letter our family completed was part of the word meaning “Chaos”. Obviously he knew that most of us who are touched by Special Needs live a life of chaos. There are many in our local Houston Jewish Community who assist and offer countless hours of support and services for children and young adults with Special Needs and other disabilities and I am sure that I speak for all when I offer our sincere and utmost thanks and gratitude to them.

These individuals and friends help to create an occasional oasis of calm within the normal chaos of our lives. Rabbi Druin told us that those moments when we break through the chaos become all the more special and important. Today is a perfect example of that. Zak would be a “Bar Mitzvah” by virtue of is birthday alone. The fact that we are here today to observe his participation in the service is a remarkable and significant breakthrough in the chaos. This is not always available or possible for some.

I must add that even though most people mean well, at the end of the day they can close the door and shut out their good intentions and work while the parents, siblings, grandparents and other caregivers can not. We live with Special Needs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

When the “stigma” of someone having any issue out of what we, the so called typically developed, refer to as a Special Need, then Justice, Justice shall prevail.

To conclude, I would like to share 2 verses that Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer, the mother of a son with Autism, believes speak particularly to our families (those who have someone with Special Needs in our lives):

"Justice, justice shall you pursue" (Deut. 16:20).

This is for us — the parents of our children. Each one of us has spent exhausting days (and sleepless nights) pursuing justice for our children -- in IEPs and meetings with schools, with specialists, therapists and teachers. But we have sought justice in much subtler ways as well: by responding to a rude comment by a stranger; by pursuing play dates endlessly for our children; by explaining (countless times to countless people) how to communicate with, tolerate, support, protect, love and understand our children; by struggling through balancing sibling issues; by making tough choices we'd never imagined we'd have to make. And we have pursued justice in much larger ways too: by supporting legislation to help our kids; by "outing" ourselves and our families in the Jewish community so others can know we are here. We pursue justice -- as it says in the Torah -- every day of our lives.

"You must be wholehearted: pure, perfect - with the Lord your God" (Deut. 18:13).

This is a verse for our children — both those with autism and their siblings. As Mary Oliver expressed in the poem, the Summer Day: “they know how to laugh crazily, how to roll in the grass, how to throw themselves passionately into what they love. We often experience them as complicated, but in truth -aren't they exactly what the verse says: wholehearted/pure and very much with God?”

Perhaps they can teach us how to fulfill this mitzvah.

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