Who Benefits More From Inclusion, the Boy with Autism or the Crowd, the Farmer or the City Dwellers?©

Who Benefits More From Inclusion, the Boy with Autism or the Crowd, the Farmer or the City Dwellers?©
by Rabbi David Baum
Ki Tavo 2015/5775

Jason Mcelwain, a 5”6 tall kid, tried out for his high school’s JV basketball team, but he didn't make it on the team; but rather than quit, he stayed on as the team’s manager. Jason was diagnosed with autism when he was 2 years old. He wasn’t sure in any part of his life, but when it came to sports, he was at home; and even though he couldn’t play, he was happy to be the team manager, and he moved up from JV to Varsity. In his three years as manager, dressing up in a suit and tie for every game, he missed only one game. He would get water for the players, set up the equipment, and cheered the players on with enthusiasm at every game.

Before his last game as team manager, his coach gave him a uniform just like the other players, and he wore it with great pride. To put on the uniform and ride the bench was probably the high point in his life until that point. But at the end of the game, with 4:19 left in the game, the coach turned to Jason, J-Mac they called him, and put him in the game. Something interesting happened in the crowd: his fellow students, sensing that he might be put in the game, printed pictures of his face and put them on their faces. He checks into the game, and his first two shots were bricks, and his coach puts his head in his hands – did I make a mistake? But then, something amazing happened: on his third trip down the court, he shoots a three, and he continued to shoot 5 more three pointers in a row – scoring 20 points total, a team high for the game. When he hit his last three pointer with three seconds left, the crowd rushed to the court and carried him off like a champion.

The truth is, we love these stories. We post them on our Facebook walls, ESPN and 60 Minutes makes stories about them. “Boy with autism hits home run”; “Intellectually challenged boy scores touchdown with team’s help”.

Today, I want to look at a very basic question – who benefits most from these stories – us, or those seemingly lonely and overlooked souls whom we give the ball to?

In this week’s parashah, we read about an interesting character. Chapter 26 of Ki Tavo outlines the procedure for how a farmer should bring in his first fruits to the Temple in a ceremony called Bikkurim.

The Torah focuses on the farmer. The farmer must come to the Temple in a far off future; the farmer must make a statement - the command to recite liturgy as we see it in the Bible; the farmer must bring his first fruits to the Temple; and the farmer must make a tithe declaration – feeding the poor of society, the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow.

The question I wondered was, why is the farmer singled out to perform this ritual?

As we look at this story, we must look at the farmer him or herself. The farmer, arguably, has the trade or profession that is probably the most lonely. They work from dawn to dusk; they probably work alone or only with their families, and they probably don't have time to interact with neighbors, nor do they probably live near anyone.

Here we see a commandment to let this farmer know, you are not alone.

First – the farmer is forced to leave his/her comfort zone, his field, and travel to the city, a place filled with people. They know that they are part of a larger people in the present.

Second – The farmer realizes he's not alone – there are other farmers just like him! The mishnah in Bikkurim describes a scene where the farmers all come together – they meet each other, they realize that there are other farmers out there, and they go to Jerusalem together with the charge, “קומו ונעלה ציון אל בית ה׳ אלקינו!” - Rise! Let's go UP to Zion, to the house of the Lord our God!” Not only do they go, but they go UP, with a shared purpose. What they do for a living isn't mundane at all, it's holy!

Third – The farmer learns he's not alone in history.

When he comes to the Temple with his first fruits, he must recite these words word for word:

וְעָנִ֨יתָ וְאָמַרְתָּ֜ לִפְנֵ֣י ׀ יְי אֱלֹקיךָ אֲרַמִּי֙ אֹבֵ֣ד אָבִ֔י וַיֵּ֣רֶד מִצְרַ֔יְמָה וַיָּ֥גָר שָׁ֖ם בִּמְתֵ֣י מְעָ֑ט וַֽיְהִי־שָׁ֕ם לְג֥וֹי גָּד֖וֹל עָצ֥וּם וָרָֽב׃

My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. 6The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. 7We cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. 8The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. 9He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me.”

They see that they are not alone in history – their forefather was also a nameless guy, a fugitive Aramean, a person from humble beginnings. And they see that they were once slaves. They appreciate their freedom, and how they got to this land flowing with milk and honey.

This scene seems to be all about the farmer, but the Mishnah teaches us something new – it might be more about us, the people in the city, than the farmer.

The Mishnah tells us that the population of the city sent out flutists before they entered the city; the big wigs of Jerusalem would came out to greet them first, then the artisans stood before them, greeting them, “Our brothers from so and so, come in peace, Batem L'Shalom!”

The students at Greece Athena High School played the role of the flute players. They welcomed Jason with cheers when he brought his first fruits to the court, they showed him that they were his brothers and sisters, that he was just like them, when they put the masks on with his picture.

Jim Johnson, the coach of the team, who has coached for 25 years said, “I've never experienced that emotional high of what happened during that game...It was just so special to me, that young man's dream came true, and I was able to make that happen for him.”

So my question is, who got more out of this ceremony? The lonely farmer who finally realized he wasn't alone, or the people of the city, the seemingly normal people, who welcomed in the lonely farmer?

Who got more out of the story of Jason Mcelwain, J-Mac, the teenager with autism who finally got his shot; or his classmates and coach, who gave him a chance to shine?

There's a famous mishnah in Pirkei Avot:

Pirkei Avot 4:3:

הוא היה אומר, אל תהי בז לכל אדם, ואל תהי מפליג לכל דבר, שאין לך אדם שאין לו שעה ואין לך דבר שאין לו מקום.

[Ben Azai] would say: Do not disparage anyone, and do not shun any thing, because every person has his or her own hour, and you should have no thing which does not have a place.

The story of the lonely farmer and the city, and the story of Jason Mcelwain, and his coach and classmates, teach us about the beauty of what it means to give someone a chance to shine, to give someone his or her hour – that's it not just for that person, but it's for us as well.

And it's not just the basketball court that can be a place of inspiration for a boy like Jason, his coaches and classmates, but this very room, a beit knesset. Jacob Artson, the son of Rabbi Bradly Shavit Artson, is an adult with severe autism; but he's a source of inspiration and a rebbe to many, including his own father, the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles. Jacob wrote: I think that people vastly underestimate the importance of spirituality for people with special needs...My body and emotions are very disorganized, but the one time that my mind, body and emotions feel totally connected and in harmony is when I pray. I have also learned many important lessons from listening to my rabbis’ sermons because we all need to live with meaning and know that we are not alone in our struggles.” Jacob is a tireless advocate for inclusion of those with special needs in synagogues, not as a mitzvah project, but as equals. Rabbi Artson once told us what Jacob said to him once, “I think the volunteers who spend time with me for their mitzvah projects think they are helping me, but I think I'm actually the one who is helping them more.”

As we approach our new year, perhaps we can learn to give others a place to shine, to show the beauty that they have within – and realize that it's not such a selfless act – that we gain something tremendous out of it – giving people a chance isn't charity – it's one of those rare things in this world that we all strive for – a win – win.


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