Ki Tisa: Moshe's lesson in inclusion

And it was that when Moshe came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the law in his hand, when he descended, Moshe did not know that the skin of his face sent forth rays of light when he talked with Him. When Aharon and all Israel saw that his face sent forth rays of light, they were afraid to come near. Moshe called to them, and Aharon and the chiefs of the people returned to him and he spoke to them, and after that, all Israel came and Moshe commanded to them all that God had spoken on Mount Sinai. And when Moshe was done speaking with them he put a veil over his face. (Exodus 34:29-33)

Moshe had a problem. Ok, he had several problems -- the people who had encountered God built themselves the golden calf only forty days later, lots of them died, God wanted to destroy the rest and start over, and Moshe persuaded Him to relent. But Moshe also had another problem, covered in just a few sentences at the end of the parsha.

Moshe was different, different in a way that bothered other people. He had come down from the mountain the second time literally aglow with God's splendor. The bright light shining from his face was painful to look at. His abnormal condition frightened the people and prevented them from working with him.

This condition -- this disability -- was not under his control and it wasn't his fault. It's just the way God made him.

So what did Moshe do? He could have said to the community "this is from God; suck it up" and expect them to deal with it. It wasn't his fault, after all; there was nothing wrong with him. He could have placed the burden and the guilt on them. If they were sensitive, caring, and inclusive people they would just ignore his disability no matter what effect it had on them, right?

But that's not what he did. Instead, Moshe put on a veil. He took on some extra work and inconvenience to mitigate what he could mitigate. This allowed him to meet the community part-way -- he adjusted what he could adjust and they adjusted what they could adjust.

Moshe and Yisrael are a model for how communities can function and be inclusive. Everybody does what he can and we all meet in the middle. Nobody places the burden entirely on the other.

I have some vision problems. To mitigate this, I have to sit in the front row if a presenter is using slides -- even though I would otherwise sit farther back, even though it can be ostracizing to sit alone up front. (C'mon, we all know nobody likes the front row.) I carry a magnifying glass to read smaller print. The community, in turn, provides large-print copies of the siddur and paper copies of the Visual T'filah slides, and is understanding if my torah reading is a little bumpy sometimes. And I, in turn, understand that if things get too bad, if my torah-reading moves from "occasional problem" to "near-certain failure", it's not fair for me to insist, to impose. Not all people can do all things, and that's ok. So we work together. It's not my burden alone and it's not the community's burden alone.

A friend tried for years to have a child and finally succeeded -- but her daughter has cerebral palsy. She has good days and bad days and sometimes has uncontrollable outbursts. My friend and her daughter go to Shabbat services -- and are ready to step out of the room if need be. This is a burden for my friend, but it's what decent people do. The community, in turn, understands that there will be some noise sometimes.

My friend doesn't demand that the community smile and nod and say nothing if her child has a prolonged crying burst; she takes her daughter out into the hall. I don't demand that presenters avoid using visual materials if I can get my own copy and follow along. Moshe didn't demand that the people just shut up and avert their eyes until sunglasses could be invented; he put on a veil. All of us also make some demands on the community, expecting the community to make accommodations, but we have to do our part first.

Inclusive communities do not place the whole burden of dealing with disabilities on the disabled. But well-functioning inclusive communities also don't place the whole burden on their other members. The whole point of being in a community is that we work together, each contributing what we can and striving to be flexible.

A veil is inconvenient and probably uncomfortable, but because Moshe wore it the people were able to stay together and ultimately enter the promised land. It is my hope and prayer that, when we're the ones who are unintentionally and unavoidably placing some challenge before others, we too can take the steps we're able to take instead of expecting others to take on the whole task.