The anticipation and excitement are building–– you have waited months for this special day. Finally, your child is born as you hear the cry of life on the other side of the room. You are emotional, on a high at having witnessed one of Hashem’s greatest miracles.
The dreams and expectations you have now are normal for most parents to have. It could be anything from smiling, crawling or babbling to walking, talking and socializing with others. It can extend to going to buy an item from a store independently, hanging out with friends, graduating from elementary or high school, going to a friend’s bar or bat mitzvah–– the list can go on and on. These are activities that most children will be able to do.
However, when a child is born with a special need or special challenge, these milestones may not be met, or may be met in a modified way at a later time in life. As a parent with multiple children with special challenges, my wife and I go through periods of extreme highs when, with tremendous efforts, milestones are met, and the lows when we realize certain milestones may never be met.
What is the Torah’s perspective and hashkafa (philosophy) on navigating through these challenges? How should people with these challenges– parents, grandparents, siblings, friends and teachers– practically focus on the positives of growing through these obstacles? What are some of the positive lessons that you can learn when you observe and converse with a person with these special differences?
The Maharal (Rav Yehudah Loëwzt”l) explains in Givuras Hashem, chapter 28, that the Torah says that Moshe Rabbeinu told Hashem that he couldn’t be the leader of the Jewish people and take them out of Egypt since he had a “heavy mouth and tongue.” Rav Loëw asks, out of all the deficiencies that a person may have, why was Moshe deficient specifically regarding his speech? He explains that Moshe was not as connected to the physical world as other human beings and the part of the body that connects the physical body to the neshama (soul) is the tongue and the ability to speak. Therefore, this deficiency demonstrated Moshe’s extremely high level of spirituality and, as a result, Moshe had difficulty speaking.
Children and adults who have these challenges are viewed by Hashem, His Torah and our Sages as lofty souls who are on extremely high spiritual levels and in need of less rectification in this world.
Rav Moshe Shapiro zt”l wrote a letter to a student who became a father of a son who was born with Down’s syndrome. “Since the birth of your son, I believe that if, with G-d’s help, you will succeed in the challenge that was given to you, then you will be presented with an incomparable gift. This child has within him the capability to accomplish that which no one else in the world could do.”
Each neshama is sent to this world with the purpose of rectifying something specific to it. Most people are sent to improve themselves, and also to affect their surroundings according to their abilities. There are some neshamos that, in of themselves, need no correction. Their entire purpose is to correct and better their surroundings.
A neshama of this grand stature was sent to your home. Accept it with much love, and assist it to perform the function it was sent. May G-d help you to carry out your role to enable this neshama to fulfill its role.”
One concrete valuable lesson that we can learn from these special human beings is that they are a tremendous vehicle for chesed (kindness) that is important for them and even more important for the giver. As Jewish people, we have a mitzvah to emulate Hashem. Just like Hashem is compassionate, kind and slow to anger, we must act the same. These special neshamos are here to help others fulfill their potential and mission. The love, time, patience and caring that is given to these special neshamos helps mold and create an environment where the givers can grow.
My older son Eli, who is on the autism spectrum, is an 11-year veteran of Camp HASC (Hebrew Academy for Special Children). The staff is dedicated and caring beyond words. One year we were supposed to have three staff members come to our house for the Shabbos before Purim. Unfortunately, they had to cancel their plans due to the weather. We were all disappointed. That year Purim was on a Sunday. As I peered out of my front window on Sunday morning, I couldn’t believe what I saw. Three staff members drove from New York to visit our son for two hours because of the care and love they felt towards a lofty soul who probably didn’t realize what they had done.
In our community, we have the privilege of having a wonderful school called Sulam, housed in the Berman Hebrew Academy, which provides appropriate secular and Jewish education to children with special needs. They mainstream the children into the regular Berman Hebrew Academy classes when it is appropriate. My second son Shua is a proud student of the Sulam program. He loves going to school and is appreciative of the opportunity to learn and grow in such a fantastic environment. It is difficult for him to read and participate in davening at shul. However, with the encouragement and guidance of the staff of Sulam, he has been able to lead the davening for Mincha the past two years. Shua takes tremendous pride in this accomplishment.
This year, he took this confidence and sense of belonging to a shul a step further. Each week he has taken on the responsibility to set up the Kiddush cup for Kiddush on Friday night and Havdalah after Shabbos. At times, he is able to remind the congregation to insert special additional prayers during davening. This couldn’t have been accomplished without the help from above, and the self confidence instilled in him by the care and dedication of the staff of Sulam.
Another practical important lesson that we can learn from these special neshamos is to appreciate every tiny step of growth. Never take anything for granted. Every breath and second of life is a gift. The Jewish people are called Yehudim. Rav Hutner zt”l, the Rosh Hayeshiva of Yeshivas Chaim Berlin, writes that the word Yehudah comes from the word hodah which means to admit that we need the help of Hashem for everything we do. This obligates us to thank Hashem for everything.
When my son was five years old, we had an appointment with a doctor of genetics at the Kennedy Kreiger Institute in Baltimore. The assessment and results of the appointment were quite disappointing and discouraging. As we were waiting on that cold March rainy day for my car to be pulled around from valet parking, I was deep in thought. Why couldn’t we have received more encouraging news? Hashem, please show me a sign that all will be okay.
A few minutes later I looked up to see two therapists with a boy approximately 10 years old, waiting for his van to be pulled around. The therapists decided to use their time to help little Tom practice walking. They began to encourage him to take steps as they stood by his side to support him. He was unsure of himself and was unstable until they helped guide him. Tom began to walk a few steps with the support and after a few steps, his therapists let go and Tom was walking on his own. The therapists began to cheer as they all saw months of practice pay off. Tom looked and felt like a million dollars.
The sign that I hoped for was in front of my eyes. Tom, the 10-year-old, was struggling to walk a few steps. Yes, my son had and has many challenges. However, he was half Tom’s age and he walked well without any assistance. I went home humbled, appreciative and counting my blessings from Hashem. My wife always says to my children that we are all millionaires. They give her a look and question her. She proceeds to ask them, “Would you give up one of your eyes for a million dollars?” They respond with an emphatic no, and the message is very clear.
Last but not least, we can learn a critical lesson from Basya, the daughter of Pharaoh. She came to the Nile River to bathe and saw a basket by the reeds. When she heard the baby cry, it was the sound of a young lad. Rashi explains that the basket was out of her reach and when she stretched her arm as far as it could go, miraculously her arm extended to the child. The Kotzker Rebbe explains that we can learn from this incident that a Jew is responsible to do his or her best, and the remaining assistance will come from Hashem.
When my son Shua was 12, we were contemplating his bar mitzvah plans. He loves learning Torah, and we decided that he would attempt to complete a mesechta (tractate) of the Mishna in honor of his bar mitzvah. Every Sunday morning he would learn with his Rebbe, Rabbi Lichtenstein. After completing and reviewing each perek (chapter), I brought him to my rebbe, Harav Shraga Neubeger shilta to test him on the perek. He knew the material of all four chapters quite well and he felt amazing after the completion of the mesechta.
This was a springboard for him to continue learning with his rebbe and several other peers a few times a week. At this point, he has almost completed an entire section of mishnayos. I could have never imagined that he was capable of accomplishing what he set out to do. With the help of Hashem, a practical goal and a positive attitude, there is so much you can accomplish.
Rabbi Sholom Hoffman and his wife Peninah are proud parents of three wonderful children, two of whom have special needs. He has been a rebbe at the Torah School of Greater Washngiton for over two decades and has a master’s degree in special education. Rabbi Hoffman studied and learned at Ner Israel Rabbinical College. He is a close student of Rav Shraga Neuberger shlita.