When we review the top stories of 2013, we find that it was a mixed year on the human dignity front: Expanded rights for gays and lesbians in the United States; a new pope’s deeds of compassion and love; and a celebration of the life of Nelson Mandela, a great champion of freedom and equality.
And yet, we also saw the brutalization of gays and lesbians in places like Russia; the routine of scoring political points on the backs of others’ suffering, as in the U.S. government shutdown; and the slaughter of innocents in places like Syria. Many around the world continue to abide the diminishment of others, and there remain oppressed people in our communities, our country and our world.
When I reflect on 2013, the book “The Reason I Jump” by Naoki Higashida comes to mind. This book, which was translated this year from Japanese into English, portrays an important message that we should consider as we enter 2014.
Higashida, a teen with autism, cannot communicate verbally. Writing through an alphabet grid, he describes what it is like to have autism: lonely, frustrating, disheartening, isolating; that it often painfully feels as though his existence is a burden to others.
“The Reason I Jump” shatters the conception that people with conditions like autism have “special needs.” Higashida affirms what my teacher Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson - himself the father of an extraordinary young man who has struggled with autism – teaches: that all human beings, despite their physical or mental states, have the same emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs.
So many of us encounter the world as if those people who are like us are “normal,” and everyone who is not like “us” is not. This disposition is not only reflected in our relationships with those who wrestle with conditions like autism. It also manifests, to offer a few examples, in our relationships with those of different religious traditions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and income levels. The result of this is that many afford the fullness of human dignity only to a certain, small group of people that fit into our narrow, personalized categories of “normal.”
This attitude is antithetical to the Jewish tradition, which holds as foundational that all human beings are created in God’s image. All are worthy of honor, all have infinite value, and all are fundamentally equal. Human dignity is such an important Jewish value that, according to several Talmudic passages, it overrides all other commands in the Torah.
These Jewish values present each of us with the responsibility to advance human dignity. We are charged with building a world in which all people are treated equally and as infinitely valuable. To achieve this vision, we can follow the adage, “think globally, act locally.” Working within our own limited spheres of influence, we can, in the aggregate, impact the whole world.
I take inspiration from my grandmother, Bobbie Knopf, in this regard. With vision and boldness, she built an organization called Nobis Works, which offers vocational training, social services, placement resources, job coaching, and employment opportunities for people with all kinds of physical and mental challenges.
Too often, people with physical and mental disabilities are marginalized, treated as incompetent or burdensome, or condescended as if they are incapable of intelligent thought. By enabling clients to work, Grandma’s organization empowers them to feel the sense of pride, accomplishment, fulfillment, and worth that comes with work.
Relatively speaking, Nobis Works is a small, local, organization. There are other great programs like it around the United States and the rest of the world. But Grandma’s small operation has helped over 24,000 individuals secure jobs since 1975.
My grandmother taught me that every person has the capacity, even if only a limited one, to advance the cause of human dignity. Of course, one does not need to found an organization to have an impact. Simply changing how we relate to and treat others who are different from us can make a major difference. In ways large and small, each of us can help fashion a world where every person is treated in accordance with the fullness of his or her humanity.
A resolution, then, for the New Year: In 2014, let us each resolve to do what we can to lift up all who are debased in our communities, our country, and our world. May we be blessed to build a better world in 2014.