Nota Shlomo was but five years old and my rabbi was coming for a visit. Rabbi Moshe Shapiro, shlita, had arrived from Jerusalem the day before and insisted on coming to our home. Yes, he wanted to visit with us, but primarily he wanted to see Shlomo, our son who has Down syndrome.
Shlomo was the first one to the door. When my rabbi entered, Shlomo grabbed him around his knees and hugged him for a short while. Rav Moshe commented with a smile, "He knows who loves him."
During our ensuing conversation, my wife and I asked for an elaboration on that comment. And Rabbi Shapiro explained. The soul of a child with physical and cognitive limitations is certainly loftier and more complete than our own souls. Most souls are sent to this world to primarily fulfill their unique divine purpose. A soul placed in a body which has limited functionality in this world, is sent with the primary purpose of improving those around him. Its purpose is served by being there for family and friends to work on themselves. Such a soul has special sensors to be able to feel and perceive the moods and emotions of others, even if overtly that ability is not apparent. There is an intuitive sense which pervades many a child with special needs, enabling him to correctly determine who really cares, who really loves, and who is merely pretending. And so, my rabbi instructed, it is crucial to be sure that any therapist we engage should truly love Shlomo, because that will elicit active participation and maximum results, thereby assisting him in fulfilling his primary purpose. He will feel... he will know.
A few weeks later, a new physical therapist paid her first visit to our home. She walked in, climbed the stairs ahead of Shlomo, and prior to the session she put on a pair of surgical gloves. Real love! Within 15 minutes, Shlomo was bouncing down the steps with the therapist's pocketbook in hand. He placed it by the front door and emphatically waved goodbye! He knows who loves him.
We all respond more energetically and with greater desire, drive and determination when we are encouraged by love.
The ramifications of this revelation go far beyond therapeutic situations and, indeed, far beyond children with special needs. Don't we all respond more energetically and with greater desire, drive and determination when we are encouraged by love? Don't we all find ourselves working harder to please the one who encourages us with acceptance, optimism, confidence and pride?
Professionals have often said that children brought up in a home which has a supportive environment and which is replete with positive reinforcement will develop a greater degree of self confidence and self-esteem than those brought up in a punitive system. How much more so for the child who is blessed with a soul that has heightened awareness and sensitivity! The child with special needs responds to each interpersonal relationship and therapeutic challenge far better when it is accompanied by supportive positive encouragement and genuine love.
I have met parents who have told me that they find it hard to love a child who is physically deformed or developmentally disabled. Is it because the society around us places so much emphasis on external appearances that one who doesn't fit the image elicits uncomfortable emotions? Is it because of the extra amount of time and effort necessary to help such a child succeed and develop? Is it because we somehow feel (baselessly) that it's "our fault" that our child has issues, and we have difficulty facing our own faults? Is it because we experience so much pain that we cannot face reality? Is it because we so mightily feel the pain and frustration of the child that we avoid contact? Is it because we are ashamed of this child with special needs?
Causes may be theorized, but practically the response is not at all appropriate. It certainly does nothing to help us move forward in a constructive way.
A number of years ago, a middle-aged couple approached me with an unresolved issue. Their ninth child was born with both developmental and physical abnormalities. Mrs. Schwartz accepted Simcha with love and dealt with him with the same devotion and love she did the first eight. Maybe even with more. Mr. Schwartz, on the other hand, had difficulty playing with Simcha, kissing him, or even holding him comfortably. The resultant problem was predictable. Simcha never wants to be held by the father, is always cranky around him, and consequently gives him no nachas.
I stated the obvious conclusion. The child was merely responding in kind. He demurred and reiterated that he found it too embarrassing to be with the child, and so I related to him the following story:
We must learn to look at every person not just as a physical representation, but as the bearer of a holy soul.
One Friday, when I was a yeshiva student, I went to a mikva in Boro Park. Exiting the showers, I came upon an elderly Jew who was severely deformed. He was a hunchback who was bent over to the point of needing to tilt his head upwards just to be able to see forward. He looked at me and held out a bar of soap. "Please, wash my back," he requested. It was obvious that he was unable to do so himself. I had difficulty enough looking at him, much less actually washing him. I just couldn't! As I tried to run past him I quickly mumbled some excuse about being in a big rush. He grabbed my wrist with an iron-like grip. We looked at each other for a moment and he stabbed me with his words of rebuke. "You have no ahavas Yisrael -- no love for your fellow Jew."
We must learn to look at every person not just as a physical representation, but as the bearer of a holy soul. The Torah obligation of "Love your neighbor as yourself" is because, as the sentence concludes, "I am God" (Leviticus, 19:18). We are called upon to love every Jew in part because we all share the same source of soul. In the language of the Maharal, the 15th century philosopher, each soul is called a Chelek Eloka Mimaal -- a "piece of God" so to speak. God blew of Himself into each person -- V'Yipach Be'Apov Nishmas Chaim. The soul which exists in each person emanates from God Himself. Just as it is incumbent upon us to love the Almighty, we are equally obligated to love every Jew.
The Sages say "Jews, Torah and God are one." The Alter from Kelm explains, "Loving every Jew is an expression of our love for God." They are intertwined and are part of the same continuum. We need to look more than skin deep... we need to see each person as a child of God, as a holy soul, as a "piece of God." Just as we are not perfect, we should love others even if we perceive imperfections.
If I love because of beauty, talent and potential as defined by the norms of society, then I love selfishly. If I love just because -- I love selflessly.
Each and every one of our children is a gift from the Almighty. Our children deserve our love. If I love because of beauty, talent and potential as defined by the norms of society, then I love selfishly. If I love just because -- I love selflessly.
My suggestion to Mr. Schwartz was that he view his child in a different light. Try to look beyond the perception to see into the reality. Try to show love to your special child, to this unique soul. Try to love because of that which we share in common, instead of focusing on the differences. Rabbi Pam, zt"l once said, "The gap between our developmentally delayed children and ourselves is far less than the gap between us and God." I implored the father to try to spend more time with his son, to develop and express love, to demonstrate affection -- and hopefully Simcha will respond in kind.
Several days after our conversation, I received a call from Mr. Schwartz. Simcha got sick the day after we had spoken, and his wife was unable to take him to the doctor. And so this father had to do it for the first time -– to carry his child to the doctor! He was introduced to the facts of a pediatrician's waiting room. For an hour and a half he sat waiting. For an hour and a half he had the opportunity to try a new approach. He had difficulty getting started, until suddenly another parent looked at Simcha. "Your son is so sweet... he's adorable... such beautiful eyes." Mr. Schwartz looked into Simcha's eyes and he found himself looking through his eyes into the depth of the soul. He suddenly found himself filling with emotion... a feeling which was familiar because he had experienced it with his other children. He hugged his son harder and harder. He whispered, "I love you," into his ear. For the next hour this father played with his son. Played and hugged. After an hour, his child fell asleep on his shoulder... for the first time.
Within a few weeks, all barriers were broken. Simcha smiled when his father looked at him and obviously enjoyed the time spent together. As a side benefit, the other children in the family became more involved and expressive and Simcha's development increased dramatically. He knows who loves him. All children respond positively to love. Yet, the child with developmental disabilities often reacts more dramatically. He is more intuitively connected.
When we work on ourselves to relate to our special child out of true love, we are sending an important message to the child. Even if he is not endowed with the capacity to comprehend the written or spoken word, even if he is incapable of understanding language in the way most people do, he is blessed with the natural innate ability to know that which is expressed in other ways. He knows what we are feeling. It makes an impression. He feels what we are feeling. It makes a difference.
It's a message of love just because. It‘s a message of relationship with no strings attached. It is loving the child the way God loves us. It's a message which inspires maximum self-esteem and self worth, and fulfillment of purpose.
For many of us love comes naturally. Others among us may need to work on it and develop it or dig deep and reveal it. And we should -- because it is healthier, more pleasant and much more enjoyable for all involved. We must develop ourselves to the point where our true love overflows and our true appreciation of our child's very existence is a tangible reality. It will make a difference to our child, to God and to ourselves.
This article originally appeared in Spirit Magazine.