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Nothing About Us Without Us

11/05/2021 07:04:51 PM


          Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Toldot, in which we read about the birth of Jacob and Esau, the twin sons of Rebecca and Isaac. In the beginning of the parasha, the Torah tells us, “Isaac pleaded lenokhah ishto” (Genesis 25:21). Most commonly, this is translated as “on behalf of his wife,” but Rabbi Shai Held points out in his book, The Heart of Torah, that this Hebrew could also mean, in a more literal translation, “in front of”, “in the face of”, or “opposite.” Midrash Genesis Rabbah corroborates this last option, suggesting that Isaac goes into one corner, while Rebecca goes into the opposite corner of the room, and they both pray facing each other. I like Rabbi Held’s view, though, that the meaning of “in front of” illustrates that Isaac is not only concerned with Rebecca’s happiness, but also with her involvement in his attempts to help her.

          Rabbi Held teaches that this is primarily about Isaac’s unconditional love for Rebecca and his desire to prove to her his commitment. I’m not opposed to that reasoning, but I also feel there is something keenly important to this practice generally speaking that nothing should be done for another person’s betterment without their presence and input. A catchphrase often heard in marginalized communities seeking better equality and representation is, “Nothing about us without us.” In looking it up for this d’var Torah, I learned the phrase originates in medieval central European politics, as parliaments and other representative governments were being introduced to the ancient monarchic systems. However, it came to be commonly used in English in the 1990’s through disability activist James Charlton, who learned it from South African disability activists. Now, it is used worldwide for many marginalized identities, including disability status, race, gender, or economic access. The idea is also often summarized thus: if you find yourself in a board room or on a committee dedicated to disability inclusion, or anti-racism, or LGBTQ equality, and there is no one with a disability, or of a minority race, or in the LGBTQ umbrella, that board or committee is not fully equipped to address those issues.

          Our Ner Shalom book club recently read the book, Esau’s Blessing: How the Bible Embraces Those with Special Needs, which posited that Isaac might have a cognitive disability. If so, it’s possible he deeply, personally, understands the importance of needing to have a say in his own care. Even if not, it’s possible after his experience on Mount Moriah, he has a special awareness of the need for autonomy and self-directed care. In any case, with this reading of lenokhah, it’s clear that he understands that as someone who cannot get pregnant, he is not fully equipped to intercede on Rebecca’s behalf without her input. He wants to support her, help her, pray for her, but he knows he cannot fix her or take over the situation for her.

          Isaac is modeling here for us how we should all seek to address inequalities around us: to be advocates, to amplify the voices of those historically silenced, to support and assist as we are able. But never to talk over, take over, or try to control a narrative or situation that doesn’t directly impact our own identities. May we all follow Isaac’s example and seek guidance from those we hope to uplift. May we serve usefully and earnestly, and may we all live with equity in harmony. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

Sat, May 28 2022 27 Iyyar 5782