The Moabite King Balak was extremely worried about the power of the Children of Israel – that ragtag collection of escaped slaves who, with the help of the Torah, had begun the process of nation-building while wandering in the desert. So, in a typically Biblical response to a difficult situation, Balak sought a solution in the form of a prophet, in this case Balaam. Balaam’s task was put a curse upon the Children of Israel, which would impede a military victory on their part. So Balaam went to a mountaintop overlooking the camp of Israel from which to cast the curse, and then another vantage point, then another. In each case Balaam considered what he saw and, while intending to do Balak’s bidding, found that he could not utter a curse. Instead, he spoke words of blessing: “How beautiful are your tents Oh Israel”.
From the point of view of mere mortals, it is easy to confuse a thing of beauty with something unsightly. What counts as beautiful or meritorious varies from one society and culture to another. Following orders is sometimes valued, while the same behaviour may be seen as evidence of a lack of moral fibre and independent judgement in other circumstances. So how do we know who or what is deserving of our blessing and what is worthy of our contempt? Is it relevant that a person is without limbs or has visual or hearing limitations? What of those with weird bodies, or strange minds, or really limited intellectual capacity? What if a person is non-verbal and/or unable to live independently, whether as part of the aging process or earlier in life?
My answer to this is, of necessity, culturally biased. It begins with the recognition that we are all made in God’s image, that we all contain a spark of the divine. In this regard we are equals, even though some of us will be stronger than others, some of us with be wealthier than others, some of us will be better educated than others. But it also recognises that individuals have the capacity to do good or evil, and that some people are decidedly more worthy of respect than others. It does not follow, though, that some people are worth more than others.
So how do we respond to people with disabilities? As parents of children with disabilities, we did not plan to have these different children. As people with disabilities we did not choose the characteristics that are so often seen to define us. People with disabilities are not exceptions to the principle that we are made in God’s image. Yet, it is often thought that some people are cursed and that perhaps this curse is a result of sin. While this is rarely stated out loud, people with disabilities are avoided, shunned and even sent away so that they don’t need to interfere with ‘normal’ lives of others.
We should not deny that the presentation of difference, like the arrival of the Israelites in the Sinai desert, can create trauma. When a child has a disability our expectations are displaced and our ordinary notions of reality are bent. We are likely to experience a lived reality for which we are unprepared. As parents, we naively believe, in advance of actual parenting at any given point of development, that there is one path – walking, talking, preschool, school, travel, university, work, marriage, children – and that it will be relatively straightforward. When a child is found to have a disability there may be a period of mourning. In some cases this is because of a recognition of the hardships that the child will have to endure to achieve things we take for granted, or may have illnesses which will cause pain which is “not deserved”. It also may be that there is grief because parents have to put aside their preconceived ideas about children, childhood and measures of success.
All children are a mixed blessing and all people struggle in their interactions with the world. Our perception of whether the tents of Jacob are to be blessed or cursed, or should be seen as a blessing or as a curse depends on two things. The first is our own ability or inability to see the spark of the divine in the other. This was Balaam’s first challenge – what his eyes would see in the Israelite camp.
The second challenge is also both ours and Balaam’s. Beyond what we see is our ability to tell the story one way rather than the other. I have a child with a complex disability – a rare Jewish genetic disorder. It is a hard lot for her to bear, but from the outside I can choose to tell two completely different stories about this daughter. I can tell about the hardships in her life, the things she can’t do, the expectations she has not lived up to – something I never think to put on parade with regard to my other children. Or I can tell you that she is a young adult who is photographer, a violinist, a member of two different drama troupes and engaged in Jewish learning. She is no better or worse than my other children, all of whom present challenges and bring me enormous joy.
As a prophet with a Divine mission, Balaam’s mouth was shaped into the words of blessing. It is harder for us ordinary people to exercise our own discretion and see what is goodly and worthy of a blessing. We may need to climb three mountains to find the vantage point and gain the perspective from which to speak a sincere blessing. This means that we are ultimately able to see that people with disabilities are not people with ‘special needs’ or ‘exceptional’. This language has been incredibly damaging, because people with disabilities are as good or bad as anyone else, and have the same needs as everyone else. To the extent that any child or adult is worthy of and even entitled to a blessing, so too are all people -independent of visible or perceived difference.
Towards the end of the Parsha, Balaam asks: “How can I curse whom God has not cursed, and how can I invoke wrath if the Lord has not been angered?” This is a question that we all need to ask.