Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Response to Stares

My remarkable friend Tammy over at PrayingForParker posted a thought-provoking item today titled "When the Stares Start". On first reading, my response was based on my own reactions (you can see my response in her comments section).

Reflecting further, I remembered something from the Special Education in Jewish Settings course I took a few years ago - the course that led to my thesis topic; the course that I will be helping to teach this summer!.

One who sees people with disīŦgured faces or limbs recites the blessing, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe Who makes people different.” One who sees a person who is blind or lame, or who is covered with sores recites the blessing, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who is a righteous judge.” But if they were born that way (with the disability), one says, “... Who makes people different.” (Babylonian Talmud, Berakot 58b)

Powerful stuff.

So I just went back and reviewed all the coursework and blackboard responses (it was an online class) relating to the discussion about these two blessings. Shortly after I took this class, Sam's class was assigned to do their own wrestling with certain blessings, and his friend T got this set. So I had the privilege of discussing it with her, too.

So, my take on this: These blessings acknowledge a few key things about people.
- Every person is created In G-d's Image, and is unique and special.
- Every person, no matter how "flawed", is important in this world.
- It is Human Nature to stare at things that strike us as unusual.

Ok, stop there. Why do we stare? Because we automatically are drawn to notice things that are not part of our normal environment. Why? Well, go back a few million years, and consider the Fight or Flight response. The only ones who survived were the ones who could notice and deal with danger.

But people with differences are not a danger to me, right?

Right, but let the evolutionary process flow, and consider that maybe in the past, someone stronger or bigger than you - someone different from you - might indeed be a danger.

Moving forward in time:

So why do I have to say a blessing when I see someone with a difference?

To acknowledge that normal human reaction to stare, and to frame it within an appreciation of G-d's creation.

We're gonna stare, might as well say a blessing about it!

Why are there two different blessings?

The first is to be used when the difference is "natural", created by G-d. The second is to acknowledge that "stuff happens" in our lives (accidents, illnesses) and G-d is still involved in the process of our development. (The same blessing, "...the righteous judge" is also said when you hear about a death.)

BUT...

When do you say these blessings? What makes you NOTICE someone who is different from your version of normal?

Would I have to say the first blessing every time I saw my daughter? Every time I see someone at shul who uses a cane or walker? Would my friend Tammy (see blog post above) have to say it every time she changed her son's trach?

NO!

These people in our lives are not DIFFERENT to us. They are a normal part of our lives. And that might extend to our reactions beyond our own circle of friends.

I don't know many people who need to use wheelchairs, but I do know some. I don't see them every day. But when I do see them, I don't notice the wheelchair.

But I know fewer people missing a limb. That still catches my attention. And perhaps the first time I see such a person after a long time, I should probably say the blessing ("ah, how do you know whether it was from birth or happened after?!" I don't. Just guess.)

People in our circle are used to seeing Sofia. She is not Different, any more than Micah or Sam is Different, in their eyes. So maybe when they see the adults at the local supermarket who have Down syndrome, they no longer see those people as Different either, but rather as someone individual and unique who looks a little like Sofia.

But certainly there are many people who live in very limited worlds. Who ONLY see people who are JUST LIKE THEM. Who cannot see clearly that every person is unique and different and wonderful and important in their own way.

I think I would say a blessing on seeing THOSE people!

(Ah, thanks, Tammy, for giving me something of content to write about!)

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