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Cantorial Comments - Parshat Bo                                    February 1, 2020 - 6 Shevat 5780

01/30/2020 10:25:44 AM


“We live in a world that has so many people striving to look normal to a bunch of people that are abnormal, in order to be accepted. What is normal is realizing that being accepted comes at a price that robs the world of the uniqueness that God has created you to be every time you minimize your personality to make someone like you.”
                                       --Shannon L. Alder, American author

Although I do not have any children of my own in the Toronto public school system, as I go about my week, it was impossible not to notice how strongly the 83,000 employees of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario are making their voices heard.  Provincial cuts in education have seen class sizes rise, seriously diminished support for students with special needs, and according to a recent press release by the ETFO, the strikes will continue until teachers receive “the tools and supports to prepare students to realize their individual aspirations and productively contribute to the economic and social fabric of this province.”  It seems so obvious—the right to education is a basic two-way street of society in that a public investment in education yields children who grow into productive adults that benefit our country and the world both socially and economically.  However, the cost of education has been rising dramatically in recent years, in part, due to our evolving understanding of teaching approaches, methods and support systems.  In particular, children with learning disabilities and/or other special needs are something we, as a society, are learning to better recognize, become more sensitive to, and adapt educational strategies in order to accommodate.  Of course, as we recognize a higher percentage of students with individualized special needs, there is an increasing demand for specialized accommodation which, in turn, has been contributing heavily towards what has become an all-time high in public education costs.  There are those who would remind us that public funding is not infinite and that it is simply impossible to accommodate everyone.   They admit that while it is regrettable that our education is not the best fit for everyone, they remind us that it has been proven successful for the majority of students, and for those students who are unable to thrive within the educational system in place, there are still opportunities for adults with poor education to be useful and valued in Canadian society.  So, does a right to education simply mean that every child has a right to have access to the education system as it exists, regardless of whether that child is able to conform to a uniform learning style that fits the majority? Or, does it really mean that the province has a duty to educate every child according to their needs?  Or, more to the point, are these special accommodations what we, as a society, should be paying for with public money?

The narrative in our Torah reading this week makes us feel like it should be time for Passover.  Parshat Bo describes the final 3 plagues visited upon Egypt.  God instructs the Israelites to mark their doorposts with the blood of a lamb so that the Angel of Death will know to pass over their houses as it destroys the first born of Egypt.  It is the ultimate good vs evil matchup—Moses against Pharaoh, and the fate of the Israelite nation hangs in the balance.   But really, if we look at the text very carefully… what is Moses actually doing?  At first, it seems like a silly question. Well, obviously, Moses does not cause the plagues, God does.  Moses’ charge, rather, is to be a spokesman for the Israelite people to Pharaoh, bringing the words of God, the famous phrase, “Let My People Go”.  But then, if we recall last week in our reading, Moses complained to God in the burning bush that he was “aral sfatayim”, “of uncircumcised lips” (Ex. 6:30), a sufferer of a speech impediment that made him unsuitable to be a spokesman.  God responds, “You shall speak all that I command you, and Aaron, your brother, shall speak to Pharaoh, that he let the children of Israel out of his land” (Ex. 7:2).  It turns out that the words “Let My People Go” were not words uttered by Moses, but rather, his brother, Aaron.  So we ask again, what did Moses DO?

Is it still a silly question?  Of course it is!  Even today, we use interpreters for public speaking all the time.  Whether due to a language barrier, or if a sign language interpreter is required, we all understand that it is not the words of the interpreter that we are hearing, and we understand that the credit for the words does not go to the interpreter, but to the person who is being interpreted.  Moses, of all people, needed special assistance in order to fulfill his role as a part of our history, culture and theology, not to mention developing the foundations for social structure in modern western society. God called upon Moses, not Aaron, to lead the Israelite nation because Moses had the ‘special sauce’ for the job.  Aaron was Moses’ spokesman, offering the support structure needed in order for Moses to realize his potential.

Terms like normal and abnormal are becoming pejorative in our society.  It is becoming an ever-more egregious sin to define human qualities in such terms, and on the one hand, it seems clear that classifying a human characteristic in this way can cause a person to feel alienated.  But by doing so, we are also saying that we hold up normativity as the ideal, and that anything straying from this idyllic normal requires an accommodation to be resented.  I believe that it is quite normal to be abnormal.  In the many years I have been teaching bar and bat mitzvahs, we often begin with a discussion with parents about the unique learning style of their child, and we custom tailor the learning process in order to bring out the best in each student.  Even more importantly, we custom tailor the learning process in order to provide each student with a positive and rewarding learning experience, one that will be associated with Judaism and our synagogue for the rest of their lives.

Moses, together with the overwhelming majority of genius-level individuals who propel humanity forward with advances in science, art and philosophy, did not meet the standards of “normal”, and the world is better for it.  We can only imagine how many geniuses there must be out there who have been underutilized or lost entirely because our society was unwilling to “accommodate” them socially or academically.  Perhaps not every child in our education system is destined to be a Moses.  But imagine how our entire world could benefit if each child were given the means and support to achieve their potential, let alone the personal value to each child and their families.  Perhaps then, we could consider modernizing the way we prioritize public funding for education and give teachers “the tools and supports to prepare students to realize their individual aspirations and productively contribute to the economic and social fabric of this province”.

Shabbat Shalom,

Thu, October 22 2020 4 Cheshvan 5781