Garrison Keeler famously ended his radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, with the words, “And that’s the news from Lake Woebegone, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”
Of course, it is logically impossible for all children to be above average, and yet we implicitly know what Lake Woebegone is all about. We understand the unreal expectations it holds for itself and its children. We, who walk the glittery expanses of our cities want to bend the rules of nature and logic to meet our idealized conception of ourselves. We don’t just want our children to be perfect. We want them to be above average.
Except children don’t work that way.
February marks Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. When addressing the issue of inclusion in the Jewish community, we can talk about all the work that has been done to create more ease of access for those with limited mobility. We can speak about handicapped-accessible doors and elevators. We can discuss the best ways to go about treating people who have disabilities with respect and care. These are all wonderful and encouraging developments.
Yet, these approaches are not enough. They assume that we are looking to give tzedakah – to help those who are “more needy.” That is a condescending process that belittles. It is an approach that I myself often fall into, and it is wrong.
There is something crucial for us as a society – and for us as people seeking to understand God – to gain from those who might be called “atypical.” We must be prepared to ask ourselves: “What spiritual lessons are we to learn from people living with disabilities? Why has God created us with differences?”
I believe that the answer to these questions resides in our human desire for uniformity and for perfection – our desire to make moulds, and our desire to fit moulds, our desire to always be perfectly in fashion and our desire to always be above average. But the existence of the atypical teaches us that our expectations for perfection are misplaced. Our moulds don’t work. The cognitive patterns that we impose upon nature never fully encompass nature.
The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 37) speaks of the greatness of God in a counter-intuitive way: “When a man mints coins with one press, the coins are all the same. But when the King of Kings mints each man from the stamp of Adam HaRishon, each of them is different. Therefore, every person must say, ‘For me the world was created.’” The message is clear: We can only appreciate God when we acknowledge that God mints the human coin so that every person is different. We can only appreciate God’s presence in the typical when we acknowledge God’s presence in the atypical.
This is the spiritual lesson of difference. When we appreciate the unique divine quality of the atypical child, we can also appreciate the typical child in her own divine uniqueness.
We, as a community, know this better than anyone. As Jews, we willfully differentiate ourselves from the norms of society. We are not just the “People of the Book,” we are the people who are different because of the book. And that book tells us that there is no atypical person, because there is no typical person. Each of us is created in the image of God – each of us was specially crafted at the divine mint.
This month, let’s try to break our perceptual habits. Let’s try to break our prejudices. Let’s try to not be “above average.”
Rabbi Chaim Strauchler is spiritual leader of Shaarei Shomayim Congregation in Toronto.