Hearing the voice of Moses

This week I spent time working on my sermon for Shabbat morning (when we celebrated a moving Bat Mitzvah) and for various reasons I wanted to look at the Disability Living Allowance cuts (etc.) - hopefully you'll see below why this was so relevant both to this weeks Torah portion and to the Bat Mitzvah. I am indebted in its writing to @BendyGirl (http://benefitscroungingscum.blogspot.com/) and was moved by the congregants who approached me after the service to tell me how affected by these cuts they are. We must raise up our voices. I have been asked to share those words as widely as possible, so here they are!

"Maya mentioned in her dvar torah that she has special needs –though I would argue her sense of an inability to sing is only a disability if Maya believes it is! It’s often said that we in fact all have special needs of one sort or another, we are just affected by them in different ways. Our limitations are often placed on us by the world we live in, but it is not uncommon for us to place limitations on ourselves, through our own fear and doubt. Moses demonstrates this perfectly in this weeks Torah portion, trying to convince God (not just his parents or a teacher) that he really can’t do the task he has been called to. He has a speech impediment, which midrash tells us was caused when Moses had placed hot coals in his mouth as a child[1]. But we can learn a huge amount from Shemot about supporting those who may need more support to achieve their full potential than others. If we are all given the right encouragement and guidelines, and perhaps more importantly resources, just as Moses is by God, we can overcome much that life has thrown at us.

And of course it isn’t just this week’s portion which tells us of the Jewish imperative to support the vulnerable in our society, there’s the obvious quote from Leviticus: “You shall not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind” (19:14). But there are other imperatives too; one of my favourites comes from Isaiah (56:5) talking about the Temple: “For my house shall be a house of prayer for all people”. We need to not just enable, but ensure our houses of worship, and the world around us, is open to all, not just those we see.
In starting to think about these issues I sent a twitter message on Thursday to a tweeter known as @BendyGirl who I follow and have learnt a huge amount from. She suffers from a condition called Ehlers Danlos Syndrome and blogs, in her words “about the highs & lows of life lived with joints that dislocate as frequently as the British weather changes”. To leave the house she needs an electric wheelchair, however to qualify for one on the NHS you have to be wheelchair bound in your own home for 6 months. At home it is good for her health to move as much as possible, so in walking at home, she is precluding her opportunity to leave the house. She was incredibly helpful and suggested in response to my unsolicited online message that I just give her a call. Which I did.

It is clear that our responsibility, Jewish or otherwise, to support the vulnerable in our society is not going well. You might even be surprised to know that members of our own congregation are struggling through the benefits system, and despite already living hand to mouth, are facing cuts in Disability Living Allowance and Employment and support allowance. Proving you need the benefits is becoming harder and harder, with those who are wheelchair bound, likely in the new benefits which will replace the DLA to be qualified as able to work as well as you or me, as long as they can propel the chair themselves.

We all know cuts and savings need to be found, and it’s important to note this is not a coalition problem, these cuts began to be made under the previous government. But I was struck by something BendyGirl (whose real name is Kaliya) made. In Nazi Germany, well before there were Jewish pogroms and camps, disabled and mentally ill German citizens were rounded up, and it was for them that camps were initially developed. And how were the rest of the population convinced this was ok? They were told that these people were an economic drain on the nation. Increasingly, as Kaliya sees it, our media has been spearheading a campaign to convince us that the disabled are work shy benefit cheats. In the last 18 months campaigners have noticed a significant increase in hate crimes towards the disabled, and they are no longer referred to as ‘spaz’ when attacked, but as ‘benefit scrounging scum’. In fact, only half a percent of all disability claimants have been found to be fraudulent, and yet to combat these false claims, benefits are being cut by, at the most optimistic estimate, 20%. Deuteronomy (15:7) says “If there be among you a needy person, you shall not harden your heart, but you shall surely open your hand”. We need to start hearing not only the encouragement of Deuteronomy, and indeed of today’s portion, but the voice of those like Kaliya, who feel invisible (especially if they don’t have a wheelchair or white stick) and incredibly vulnerable.

Disability campaigners are, on the whole, themselves physically struggling, sick, and isolated. Moses’ inability to express himself clearly is a useful metaphor for this, he had his brother, Aaron, to help him along the way, and he became the greatest leader of the Israelites. With this kind of support, three defeats against the welfare reform bill were achieved this week in the house of Lords (cavod to my senior colleague in the corner). Yet these cuts have been happening for a while, and will continue if more isn’t said and done.

Maya, I know you are an incredible ally and support to your mum, and many in the community are carers and supporters just like you. I have seen and worked with some of you here as you struggled with eviction because benefits couldn’t be processed when they were needed. As a community we have felt the cuts in social care and allowances biting, and have this month been joined in our professional team by a Social Care worker – Jo, who is helping us deal with the sheer volume of work that is coming our way now that social services are not doing their bit, or at least helping us to navigate the incredibly time consuming beurocracy. What I hear from Kaliya, and from many other voices, particularly on the web, where the housebound often have their only outlet, is that people aren’t making enough noise about this. As part of her condition, Kaliya’s larynx had collapsed when we spoke, making the parallel between her and Moses even more stark – she, and so many others, need our voices, so that they can cling onto the meagre benefits they have now. We need to support those that we can, and be the voice for those who can’t raise theirs up loud enough. Even if this doesn’t affect you directly, it is still our responsibility to speak up for others.

And as a community we are also being given the chance to come together to work to change how accessible we are through the Judith Trusts Inclusion Campaign which is working with us to ensure we can reach out and include, and I hope more of you will want to become involved in this training as well.

Mishnah Sanhedrin (4:5) says that humans make coins, all from the same mould, and they all come out the same. God, however, makes humans each from the same mould as the first human, yet each of us is unique. We all have unique skills and abilities, as well as challenges and disabilities. Maya, you confessed to us what you struggle with, but you also demonstrated what you are fantastic at. Everyone wants to contribute, but not everyone can do so in the same way or to the same extent. I hope we can all learn from you about how to be a support and a friend. I must confess, as a sister of someone with special needs, I’m angry at what is potentially being lost both in care and in human dignity, but as a Jew, and as a British citizen, who knows we can do better, I am angrier, and I want us all to lift up our voices, in remembrance of Moses who couldn’t.
Cain Yehi Ratzon
May this be God’s will
Venomar Amen."

[1] Ex. Rabbah 1:26


  1. Awesome sermon but I wish more synagogues would take note of '“For my house shall be a house of prayer for all people”
    Not where I live. 10 steps face the wheelchair user and a shrug from the Rabbi. I am banned from the synagogue :-(

    1. I'm really sad to hear that Riven. If you are ever near Marble Arch we have a ramp and flat entrance - ramp needs improving but it does work! And you would be very welcome, with a grin from the Rabbi/s not a shrug.

  2. Thanks so much Debbie - this is so important and it is community leaders like you who must be brave and say what they feel - even if it seems to go against the current public mood.

    For anyone unable to get to a Synagogue -a little plug for all those Shul's who broadcast their services live on over the internet - including West London Reform. http://synagogues.reformjudaism.org.uk/web-broadcasts.html

  3. Thank you so much Debbie! It's so refreshing and reassuring to see such understanding and compassion. It's great for disbaled people like me to see lights like yours shining in what is becoming an increasingly dark world for us. Your words and the support many have shows us lifts so many in desperate situations and gives hope. Ther is a light at the end of the tunnel!


  4. Hello there - please consider putting a FaceBook share button on here, so we can spread your wonderful words! :) <3


    1. Oh, scrap that, you already did! I couldn't see if for the kitten on the keyboard! xx

  5. Thank You so much, Please mention this on Pause for Thought. Every Good Wish

  6. Debbie,

    Well done, and a heartfelt thank you, for dedicating your weekend sermon to an issue that affects us all.

    Your words will resonate, I hope, with those far outside of your immediate community/faith; this is a question of simple humanity. Let it be spoken among as many different communities as is possible, in the words of the Torah, the Bible, the Koran, or the individuals who find the strength to speak out, but let it be spoken widely. Thank you for reaching out and for speaking out.

    First they came for the Communists, etc.

    (for those unfamiliar with Niemoller, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_they_came%E2%80%A6)

  7. please correct me where i fail to hear the humour in the following health care reform issues, from huff post comedy articles extract of and around a jon stewart interpretation:

    Steve Lonegan, state director for Americans For Prosperity, tried to echo the sentiments of the crowd, exclaiming that "we cannot allow the pen to become mightier than the sword." Stewart knocked Lonegan for the statement, saying that the pen being mightier than the sword is "only the basis for our civilization."

    But the speaker taking the cake was Laura Ingraham. The radio personality paraphrased a famous Holocaust poem, "First They Came, " in an attempt to make an analogy to her stance against health care reform. Her evocation of the Nazis was a tad hyperbolic in the eyes of Stewart, who seemed to doubt that Ingraham recognized that "came for" was a euphemism for "round up and kill."

    Stewart closed by making a pledge to Ingraham:

    "If the government begins to round up and kill the rich and the landowning and those who choose to exercise the right to bear arms...I'll speak up."


  8. This is a wonderful service. I really appreciate your efforts to bring this to light.

    I wasn't Jewish, and have very little left of my faith after the last few years, but this helped me believe, if not in God, at least in people again.

  9. This is a brilliant article/sermon and I shall put this on my Facebook page. I'm fighting the current welfare "reform" but on a low level (I have fibromyalgia and ME). The more people who speak out about this the better and I want to thank you for sharing it. I know my lot (Catholic Church) aren't happy about these reforms and Vincent Nichols has been particularly vocal in this. If you want to get in touch with me about any of these matters, feel free to!

  10. thankyou vocal eyes!

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