Shaya's Story - A Model of Conscientious Inclusiveness

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It was the day of Avraham’s funeral and Yaakov was preparing lentil soup for his mourning father Yitzchak.  Esav came in from the field and he was hungry and tired.  We all know the story – Esav sold the birthright for a bowl of soup.


Our Rabbis (Bava Basra 16) teach us that on that day, Esav violated no fewer than five separate transgressions, including degrading his birthright. This one requires some investigation. What exactly was the transgression of selling the birthright?  Was Esav ever warned not to relinquish his firstborn status?  What was so wrong with this action that it is grouped with an act of murder and denial of God’s existence, two of the other transgressions he violated that day?


Rashi tells us that the birthright Esav inherited positioned him to serve the Almighty in a special way. Esav was given the option to participate in the divine covenant.  Had he not sold the right of the firstborn, Rabbi Soloveitchik explains, Esav would have been entitled to the same destiny that God bestowed upon Yaakov.  But Esav had no interest in this role or in the privilege of being charged with a sacred mission.  Yaakov didn’t dupe him into selling his birthright.  He wasn’t tricked, fooled or pressured.  Esav sold his birthright because he simply didn’t value it, he didn’t cherish it, and ultimately, he didn’t even want it.


The Ramban suggests – if you want to know what Esav truly thought about his birthright and the honor to carry the legacy of his father and grandfather, just look at what he does right after he sells it.  The pasuk says, va’yochal, va’yeisht, va’yakam, va’yeilech, va’yivez, he ate, he drank, he got up, he went and he dishonored the birthright.  The Ramban highlights the order in the Pasuk: It doesn’t say he denigrated the birthright when it was sold.  Rather, Esav sold the birthright, and proceeded to immediately to eat, drink and get up and go and only then, va’yivez, he displayed great disregard for the birthright.


There are times a person must forfeit something of incredible value.  Sometimes, a person brings their great grandmother’s jewelry or precious item to a pawn shop because they desperately need the money.  But, a person in that situation will reflexively grieve and feel sad over losing something so irreplaceable.  Esav didn’t grieve; he sold the birthright, and went to a party, had a drink, and didn’t look back.


Esav’s most egregious transgression was minimizing what the birthright meant to him, and how easily he went about normal life after giving it away.  He threw away a special relationship, a special mission and a special destiny, and he couldn’t care less.  He was casual and flippant with a prize possession.


That birthright, the privilege of being a member of Klal Yisroel, of being a participant of the am ha’nivchar, a full member of the covenantal community and being charged with a sacred mission, is something many of our ancestors risked and gave their lives for.  We are the offspring and the progeny of Yaakov, not Esav.  The birthright, a symbol of Jewish values and Torah, is precious to us and of inestimable value.  If we didn’t have it, we would trade everything in the world, least of all a bowl of lentil soup to get a share of it.


And because our birthright, which importantly includes the teachings and traditions of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, is so precious and dear to us, it must be accessible and available to every member of the Jewish people. Torah, Jewish values, and the Jewish community are the right of every man, woman and child, irrespective of social status, economic status, level of learning, background, or level of observance. Every single Jew deserves access to his or her birthright.  Every single Jew, no matter his or her ability or disability, no matter his or her special needs, is entitled to access to, and participation in, our collective birthright.


A man from Gateshead, England, once came to visit the Chazon Ish together with his young son, a boy with Down’s Syndrome.  When they walked in, the Chazon Ish rose from his chair. The startled father told the great not to rise on his account.  The Chazon Ish responded, “It is not in your honor that I have risen.  Rather, it is out of respect for your son, a boy who possesses one of the holiest souls of our generation.” (Ma’aseh Ish, 1:230)


These holiest souls with different potentials and roles to fill in this world have a birthright, and it is no less than anyone else’s.  BRS is proud of our recent efforts to be sensitive to the special needs population through our programming and activities.  On Simchas Torah, we hold a special Kol Ha’nearim for those who cannot participate in a large crowd.  We open the Parshas Noach event and the Purim Carnival early for those with sensitivities and we are now running a special-needs Shabbos morning group every Shabbos.


Rav Moshe Shapiro, a leading Torah scholar in Jerusalem, included the following in a letter he wrote to a student who became the father of a son with Downs Syndrome:


Since the birth of your son, I have believed that if, with God's help, you will succeed in the challenge which was given to you, then you will have been presented with an incomparable gift. This child has within him the capability to accomplish that which nothing else in the world can do - to actualize wondrous and powerful energy latent in the recesses of your heart.


In his book, Echoes of the Maggid, Rabbi Paysach Krohn tells the story of a man who once delivered a speech at a Jewish school for kids with special needs.  After extolling the school and its dedicated staff he cried out, "Where is the perfection in my son Shaya? Everything God does is done with perfection. But my child cannot understand things as other children do. My child cannot remember facts and figures as other children do. Where is God’s perfection?"


The audience was shocked by the question, pained by the father’s anguish and stilled by the piercing query. "I believe," the father answered, "that when God brings a child like this into the world the perfection that he seeks is in the way people react to this child."


He then told the following story about his son Shaya:


One afternoon, Shaya and his father walked past a park where some boys whom Shaya knew were playing baseball. Shaya asked, "Do you think they will let me play?"


Shaya's father knew that his son was not at all athletic and that most boys would not want him on their team. But Shaya's father also understood that if his son was chosen to play it would give him a comfortable sense of belonging. Shaya's father approached one of the boys in the field and asked if Shaya could play. The boy looked around for guidance from his team mates. Getting none, he took matters into his own hands and said "We are losing by six runs and the game is in the eighth inning. I guess he can be on our team and we'll try to put him up to bat in the ninth inning."


Shaya's father was ecstatic as Shaya smiled broadly. Shaya was told to put on a glove and go out to play short center field. In the bottom of the eighth inning Shaya's team scored a few runs but was still behind by three. In the bottom of the ninth inning Shaya's team scored again and now, with two outs and the bases loaded with the potential winning run on base, Shaya was scheduled to be up. Would the team actually let Shaya bat at this juncture and give away their chance to win the game?


Surprisingly, Shaya was given the bat. Everyone knew that it was all but impossible because Shaya didn't even know how to hold the bat properly, let alone hit with it.


However, as Shaya stepped up to the plate, the pitcher moved a few steps to lob the ball in softly so Shaya should at least be able to make contact. The first pitch came and Shaya swung clumsily and missed. One of Shaya's team mates came up to Shaya and together they held the bat and faced the pitcher waiting for the next pitch.


The pitcher again took a few steps forward to toss the ball softly toward Shaya. As the pitch came in, Shaya and his team mate swung at the ball and together they hit a slow ground ball to the pitcher. The pitcher picked up the soft grounder and could easily have thrown the ball to the first baseman. Shaya would have been out and that would have ended the game.


Instead, the pitcher took the ball and threw it on a high arc to right field, far beyond reach of the first baseman. Everyone started yelling, "Shaya, run to first. Run to first." Never in his life had Shaya run to first. He scampered down the baseline wide eyed and startled. By the time he reached first base the right fielder had the ball. He could have thrown the ball to the second baseman who would tag out the still-running Shaya.


But the right fielder understood what the pitcher's intentions were so he threw the ball high and far over the third baseman's head. Everyone yelled, "Run to second, run to second." Shaya ran towards second base as the runners ahead of him deliriously circled the bases towards home. As Shaya reached second base the opposing short stop ran to him, turned him in the direction of third base and shouted, "Run to third." As Shaya rounded third the boys from both teams ran behind him screaming, "Shaya run home." Shaya ran home, stepped on home plate and all 18 boys lifted him on their shoulders and made him the hero as he had just hit a "grand slam" and won the game for his team.


"That day," said the father softly with tears now rolling down his face, "those 18 boys reached their level of God's perfection."


We stand to gain the most by being conscientiously inclusive.  Our children learn sensitivity, we grow in empathy, and the community becomes greater when we embrace the mission and practice of inclusiveness in all that we do.