Stepping outside our boxes
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Stepping outside our boxes

Rabbi Dr. Yisrael Rothwachs is the dean of Sinai Schools, which operates multiple inclusive special education schools across New Jersey and the New York metropolitan area, for children who have a wide range of developmental, intellectual, and complex learning disabilities.

It’s been more than two months since we initially began to socially distance. As an educator, as a parent, and as a son, I can attest that this has been an extremely trying time. What so many of us took for granted a short while ago has now become so treasured: social interaction. Zoom classes (as heroic as the teachers are!) cannot replace face-to-face interactions. Celebrating smachot without close friends and family is something that we never would have considered before. And of course, mourning those we’ve lost without the in-person consolation of others is a challenge that breaks our hearts.
And yet, when our sense of community has been shocked, such as it has over the last months, it catalyzes opportunities for a shift in perspective and an openness to consider how life is experienced through the lens of others. Actively making ourselves vulnerable and humbly submitting ourselves to the consideration of viewpoints of others is challenging, but at the same time very gratifying — in fact, it is liberating. Suddenly, we have been given the gift to approach our relationships differently.
Social interaction serves in so many ways as the oxygen of our mental health and happiness. If we didn’t know that before, we certainly know it now. Life simply is not meant to be experienced as individuals. We are privileged, as members of Klal Yisrael, to be part of a community that celebrates not just the holiness of our nation but the uniqueness of each individual member of our community.
Chazal describes that it was precisely at the moment of our accepting the Torah at Har Sinai that every individual was given an equal opportunity to form a special relationship not only with Hashem, but with one another. The foundation of our holy relationship with Hashem, the giving of the Torah, is described as taking place when the Jews were “K’ish echad, b’lev echad,” fully united in purpose. Does that mean that everyone was the same? Did they all have the same personalities? Cognitive ability? Academic strength? Social acuity? Bank accounts? Talents? Interests? Certainly not. Our nation was as diverse then as it is now. At that definitive moment, however, we appreciated that a true love for Hashem and a deep commitment to Klal Yisrael had to be preceded by a humble and sincere willingness to celebrate the individuality of every member of our nation.
Since that time, thousands of years ago, human nature has taken its course. Division, complacency, ignorance, and perhaps even cynicism has taken the place of genuine love for others who are different from us. Tragically, the further removed we are from that Sinaitic experience, the farther we find ourselves from the foundational lesson of that experience.
As a special educator, I view the stigma experienced by children and adults with special needs or mental health challenges as a prime example of the failure of our community to reconnect with this Sinaitic state of “K’ish echad b’lev echad.” Over the last number of decades, we have come a long way, but many of us are still holed up in our boxes, unwilling to unfold the top and allow others in. When we embrace the status quo, not only do we rob ourselves of the opportunity to appreciate the uniqueness of others, but we contribute to their pain and loneliness. The longing for personal connection that so many of us are painfully experiencing during this pandemic is in fact felt regularly by those who face any one of a number of challenges throughout their lives. So many people involuntarily experience life void of connection, even when there is no crisis.
It doesn’t have to be this way. At a point in time when almost every aspect of our lives is being critically considered and evaluated — education, employment, personal finance, and of course religious observance and spiritual connection — shouldn’t we also assess the degree to which we meaningfully and genuinely reach out of the box and share our space with others?
My prayer this Shavuos is simple. Hashem, please let our celebration of Matan Torah this Shavuos of 5780 be different from years past. Allow our yearning for connectedness to include those with whom we haven’t yet identified. Please help us attain the humility and courage to appreciate how life is experienced by others, and to be that much more compassionate. Support us in our drive to internalize that what we are yearning for this year is not merely a subsiding of social distancing, but a celebration of unity and connectedness, the likes of which we’ve never truly experienced.

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