My brother, Rafi, and I graduated high school in the same year, but we’re not twins. Rafi has Down Syndrome. So while I was exploring my own path as a seventeen-year-old, my family was exploring what would come next for Rafi, who was twenty. I remember that all of my own post-graduate questions and anxiety were tied in with questions and concerns for Rafi’s future.
I also remember our visit to a Jewish day center for adults with special needs. There I saw the community come together in tangible ways to support, uplift, and nurture independence in these adults. It was a beautiful thing to witness. We were so happy and grateful because this was not only great for Rafi, but for our whole family.
Rafi is my best friend, and I am proud to be his sister. Growing up around both the Jewish community and the disabled community has shaped my identity and informed me about Jewish values as they relate to disabilities. Most of all, it has shown me God’s heart and has thoroughly convinced me that God cares deeply for all of His creation. Here are five lessons I’ve learned by having a brother with a disability.
Throughout my life, I have wrestled with the connection between my faith and my heritage as a Jewish believer in Jesus and Rafi’s disability. To my joy, I found examples of disability addressed positively in the Hebrew Scriptures. Consider God’s response to Moses’ shocking refusal when called to liberate the Jewish people from Egypt. Moses says:
“Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue.”1 Then the LORD said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? (Exodus 4:10–11)
I find great comfort in these verses. God knows Moses’ shortcomings, yet affirms that He is still his Creator, and that He still intends to use Moses to do powerful things. God is the creator of both non-disabled and disabled individuals, and He can use both for His glory.
The Hebrew concept known as צֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים (tzelem elohim, commonly phrased in Latin as imago dei), is central to a biblical view of human dignity. Translated into English, it’s “the image of God.” The idea that we are made in God’s image is foundational to how we understand ourselves as people, going all the way back to Genesis 1:27: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” The culmination of God’s creation was human beings—created in His image.
Jewish law and tradition define how we view ourselves and how we behave as people created by God. Certainly, this extends beyond ourselves to the way we view others God has created. God tells His people through Moses, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:18). Fundamental to understanding ourselves as image bearers of God is extending that same understanding to others.
Because of Rafi, I’ve learned that being “made in the image of God” isn’t something we earn by our abilities. I’m not a better representation of the image of God than Rafi is. We are both broken humans and are image bearers of the Divine solely because we’re a product of His creation. I am not any worthier of God’s love because of my abilities. If anything, Rafi has shown me that trust, patience, and overflowing joy point to God’s image in us. Rafi’s innocent side smile and almond-shaped eyes point me to the absolute joy that God radiates, and He created us to share this joy with Him and with one another. We are all canvases of God’s fingerprints of creativity, reflecting different pieces of who He is.
One of my favorite stories from the life of Jesus is when a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment was brought to him:
They begged him to lay his hand on him. And taking him aside from the crowd privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue. And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. (Mark 7:32–35)
I just love this—the humanity, the embodiment, the rawness, the tangibility, even the grossness of it. I love that Jesus didn’t have one way of healing. Jesus knew how to relate to this man, connect with him, and heal him, even if it looked weird to those around them. I know that Jesus cares for and knows how to connect with Rafi in that same, personal way.
My whole life, I’ve been known as “the Rafi translator,” and for a good portion of my life, I believed that I had to “translate” Rafi to God and God to Rafi. Reading about how Jesus interacted with disabled people completely shattered that troubling illusion. From my perspective as a Jewish believer in Jesus, He is the true intermediary for people, regardless of abilities and limitations.
Seeing disabled people in our community helps us to better see ourselves. The reality is that all of us are broken, imperfect images of our Creator. All of us are spiritually disabled when coming before a Holy God. Without God’s intervention, we do not have the capacity to have the loving relationship He intended to share with us from the beginning.
I’ve seen God’s provision and care for Rafi in the way that Judaism is inclusive of and blesses its disabled population, even representing this community in Jewish prayers and liturgy. As stated in the Hilchot Berachot, the “Laws of Blessings in Judaism”:
“One who sees … people with disfigured 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 … 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.’”2
This blessing affects me so profoundly. It literally thanks God for creating people who are disabled, and it allows the disabled a chance to thank God for creating them! I continually praise God for making Rafi just the way he is. Just as we include the disabled in our prayers of gratitude, we should include them in our lives and communities.
Inclusion work is challenging and humbling. The way we live in community reflects our core belief that the image of God resides in those who are disabled, too. We demonstrate that belief as we pray over them, support them, bless them, and give them such a place in our hearts that we weave them into the fabric of our community.
Surely, every community and family will have different ways to practically implement inclusion. For my family, including Rafi looks like changing our plans and being flexible. Coordinating shared iCalendars is a finely honed skill in our family, and there have been many times where I’ve had to say “no” to other engagements to be with Rafi. Recognizing that disabled individuals are just as deserving of love and respect as anyone else means adapting. For me, the understanding that I am spiritually disabled and in need of God’s grace has really helped me be gracious. I think that when we understand our own spiritual condition, it gives us a posture of humility as we welcome and accept those into our community who are physically disabled.
Acknowledging that we have something to learn from those who face limitations opens up a community to pursue inclusion and recognize God’s hand in all His creation. I know that I am forever grateful to God for placing Rafi in my life and family. I would not be who I am without my brother.
That’s not to say that there aren’t difficulties—each day presents its fair share. My parents will never forget their utter fright when they realized that their attempt to have six-year-old Rafi and three-year-old me quietly sit in front of the television had failed when they found the front door wide open with no kids in sight. Rafi had decided it would be more fun to take me to the park. Before long, I began acting as the big sister. I thought I had to be the one to teach Rafi everything. I would read him books and teach him to zip his zipper and tie his shoelaces. The burden of care I felt for my brother back then is still real and pressing. I want to see him thrive. I want to see him surrounded by a community that challenges him and makes him smile. But now I see that it is Rafi who has taught me the more important lessons of patience, finding joy in the small things, and loving deeply.
Proverbs 31:8–9 both commands us and compassionately guides us as we pursue God’s heart for community: “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
We have the opportunity and privilege to support the disabled community. Both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Covenant’s account of the life of Jesus uphold the importance of caring, respecting, and loving those who are disabled. And in turn, I believe that we will praise the One who has uniquely created all things and will accept our own, and often invisible, disabilities: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who makes people different.”
1. Many take this to mean that Moses had a severe stammer or speech impediment. See Darashos HaRan 3:10.