Dan Ornstein: At The Seder - Giving A Voice To The Voiceless

Apr 18, 2013

Each Passover season for the past twenty one years, the Jewish residents of our region's group homes for developmentally disabled adults have been coming to our synagogue for a model Seder, or Passover meal, prior to the holiday.  Our volunteers spend a long Sunday afternoon cooking, setting up our social hall, and serving between twenty five and thirty people and their overworked, underpaid aides.  Over the years I have learned that some of the residents have families who look after them, yet some of them were abandoned by loved ones or forgotten in the family shuffles caused by aging, physical distance and death years ago.  Their disabilities are a spectrum of severity, a variety of developmental delays, neuro-motor and communication disorders.  From what their helpers tell me, our Seder is one of the highlights of their year.  We welcome everyone as they come through the door. We play music and sing, we tell the story of the ancient Israelites' liberation from Egypt, we eat a nice meal together and we have fun. We are a noisy bunch performing a boisterous narrative about redemption for people whose voices, literally and symbolically, are imprisoned or extinguished.

After this year's Seder I admitted to myself that I don't really understand our guests. All these years, in my rush to run good programs for them, I have failed to listen to their voices, that is, to learn their stories and get past shallow assumptions about who they truly are.  So, recently I began to think about "Bill,"  a middle-aged man who came to our Seder for many years.  I remember nothing about him except his first name and that he was physically and cognitively disabled.  "Bill" also had a huge smile and this trademark way of extending his hand to greet someone new.  I do not recall "Bill" ever saying a word, yet when we sang or played music, he would jump out of his seat, extend his right arm while bringing his left arm to his chest, and spin like a spinning top around the room.  Perhaps "Bill's" behavior was frightening or alienating to some, but I now understand that it was also his voice:  his way of expressing his fierce joy at hearing music, being alive, and celebrating the holiday of freedom without worrying about others' oppressive ideas about social nicety and conformity.

On Passover, we re-live the flight from slavery to freedom symbolized in Judaism as finding one's voice as a free person. Our guests from the group homes are trapped in bodies that do not work well, so in one sense they are  slaves whose voices are silenced, literally and spiritually. They do not have the capacities that we do to communicate with the world in a fully functional way.  They repeat the same phrases obsessively, at times forgetting what they said, at other times desperate to say more.  Many of them only moan,  whoop, or grunt, and some of them say nothing.  Yet in an entirely different sense, all of their sounds and movements are, like "Bill's", profound shouts of joy, cries of pain, and expressions of their sacred individuality as human beings demanding to be recognized.  They force all of us to remember not to relegate them to some congregation of the marginal to which we pay attention no more than once a year.  They are a part of our congregation, our family, our people, our human race. They demand a place at the Seder table because they are us and we are them.  We help each other to find the individual and collective voices  that make all of us free.  With words, whistles, whoops and whirls we call out the ancient greeting recited at the beginning of the Seder:  let all who are hungry come and eat;  let all who are in need come and celebrate Passover.

Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY.

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