Difference, Disability and the Song of the Universe

[For the Ner Shalom Malakh, February 2010]

How lucky for us to have spent this last weekend tuning our ears to Creation’s own songs of praise! Studying withRabbi Shefa Gold, we chanted excerpts from Perek Shira – a mind-blowing piece of liturgy in which nearly 100 textual moments of praise, primarily taken from Psalms, are placed in the mouths of plants, animals and the natural phenomena of the planet. The effect was exhilarating and humbling. We are so accustomed to bypassing our own wide world when we offer words of praise! Instead, we conceive of ourselves as being in a private conversation with God. But Perek Shiracracks that unwarranted exclusivity open. Praise emanates from every living being, from every gust of wind, from every spiral galaxy and subatomic particle.

Perek Shira challenges us to imagine that every species and, by extension, every individual, has a song to offer. This is in fact a true challenge of imagination. We live our lives locked in our limited bodies and idiosyncratic minds. Our confinement within our familiar selves makes it hard to identify with others. How can we ever know what it is like to live in someone else’s body, someone else’s mind?

This month is Jewish Disability Awareness Month. It is an invitation to take note that all of us have different strengths and different limitations. Some of us have bodies that can’t keep pace with the activity of our minds or the desires of our hearts. Some of us have thoughts bursting like fireworks in our heads but which cannot find their way out of our mouths in the form of comprehensible speech. Some of our bodies pose staggering challenges for ourselves or for our loved ones. And still, our very existence is a song of praise to God, a Psalm to this Universe.

That is the lesson both of Jewish Disability Awareness Month and of Perek Shira. We share this Universe with each other. The peculiarities of our bodies and our minds might make us feel alien to one other. And yet, as the Rat, that most unlikely messenger, says in Perek Shira:

כל הנשמה תהלל יה

Kol han’shamah t’hallel Yah.

Every soul, every breath, is praise.

If you have ever attended our Celebrations program for children with special needs and their families (and if you haven’t, please join us), you would get it immediately. Our bodies are all different, some slightly, some quite. Our minds are all different too. But still, even so, when you open yourself up to the song of this Universe, every soul, every breath, is praise.

I am proud to be part of a community so full of difference and appreciation of difference. May our doors always be open to every soul. May we always ease each other’s burdens. And may we always hear each other’s songs.


Photo taken in West Marin County last summer.