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DIFFERENT BUT SPECIAL: Jewish Text Sees Great Spirituality in Disability

By Sarah Sirota

Wheelchair photo courtesy of NTSBDifferent doesn’t mean scary and it doesn’t mean pitiful. Something that is different is out of the ordinary; it’s extraordinary. Judaism explains that people with cognitive and physical disabilities are indeed very different; they’re special in that they possess very lofty souls.

Up until about six years ago, I knew all that, theoretically. In actuality, I still pitied them, their parents, and their siblings. The term “special needs” scared me. Then my niece was born and I became an aunt to a little down-syndrome girl.

Determined to settle the mixed emotions within me and become the proud aunt I should be, I looked for answers. Judaism held them, the explanations as to why special needs was special. Ideas that were once intangible and vague were made clear.

The Chassidic text, the Tanya, explains that righteous people are the foundation of the world. Every generation is made up of a pyramid of people, including the righteous, the average and the evil.

Due to a descent of the generations, there are fewer real righteous people in the world today. God, however, still desires to bring these souls onto earth. Since regular bodies cannot cope with such lofty souls, God puts the souls into different sorts of bodies. Non-handicapped people have a balance between physicality and spirituality. With the handicapped, however, there is an abundance of spirituality and their bodies are, therefore,subordinate to their souls.

I recall one Shabbat afternoon, when my brother, Yossel, began singing at the table. My niece, Chaya, who had been sitting quietly,playing in the living room, got up and slowly made her way to my brother's lap. She stood there patiently, looking up at my brother. As soon as he lifted her and placed her on his lap, Chaya began clapping and her eyes fixated on one corner of the room. I have never seen someone look so content as Chaya did at that moment.

I turned my head to follow her gaze, wondered what she saw there and ached to see it, too. I felt as if she was privy to some special concert, where she had the only ticket. The way she sat there, transfixed, staring intently and smiling broadly, I could swear that she was watching angels dancing.

Filled with equal amounts of pride, awe, and wonder, I began to want to do more, for Chaya and her kinship. It was then that I discovered the Friendship Circle, an affiliate of the Chabad-Lubavitch organization. It is a program that began in Detroit and has now spread throughout the country. Its website advertises its purpose, “the Friendship Circle’s wide array of innovative programming promotes a greater awareness and understanding of both the unique needs and the unique gifts of those with special needs.”
The Friendship Circle offers teens the unique opportunity to spend time with, and get to know special children. It is a learning experience, one filled with friendship, acceptance, and awareness. The children are not the only ones who benefit from the program. Its volunteers are showered with love from their new friends who do not discriminate or judge. In my four years of volunteering, I learned life lessons from a 13 year-old autistic girl.

A story I came across, further highlighted this point. A mother and father once came to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, asking Him about their special child and the fact that he couldn't keep mitzvot. The Rebbe answered that their child’s soul is on such a high level that it does not need to perform the mitzvot.

As the Tanya explains, mitzvot are the oil that keep the body, the wick, lit with the light of spirituality. Special children are on such a lofty level that they are in a constant state of illumination; therefore, they do not need mitzvot to achieve what is already there.

Special children are infinitely special. One just needs to take a closer look to notice it. An experiment was once conducted in Israeli seminary, Machon Shoshana, to explain the concept. The girls were divided into groups, each group given an assortment of cutout words from magazines. They were then told to assemble the words to form a poem. When finished, each group was invited to the front of the classroom to read their literary creation. As expected, the audience was greatly amused by the first-grade level of the poems.

The instructor then asked the girls why they could not create better sounding, more literate poetry. Immediately, they excused themselves by explaining that they were given limited capabilities to work with. If they were asked to write a poem on their own, they could have done much better. However, they were only allowed to use the words given to them and were thus extremely limited, unable to express what was truly inside them.

Their explanation made the instructor smile. She then used what they had said to illustrate the concept of special children. Given limited capabilities, they are unable to express what lies within. One just needs to recognize this and take the time to look beneath the surface.

As the Friendship Circle declares in its mission statement, “We envision a world filled with love and respect for everyone, regardless of age, race, religious affiliation, or personal differences.”

To learn more about the Friendship Circle, visit