Probing the Limits

by Rabbi Yaakov Pole

How does a person manage to become ‘ahead of their time’?

Do they possess foresight into future trends that the rest of us lack? Or have they discovered something so profound, so fundamentally deep and true, it will be years before the rest of us can catch up and grasp their discovery?

In some cases, the answer is both.

This was the realization I had after watching JEM’s latest video, Reflection of G-d. It offers a broad snapshot of the guidance of the Lubavitcher Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of righteous memory, the spiritual leader of the worldwide Chabad movement, reverently called just ‘the Rebbe’) regarding what we now typically call ‘special needs’ individuals. In fact, that’s just one example of being ‘ahead of his time’: the Rebbe suggested using the term ‘special’ (minus the ‘needs’) at a time when the only labels in use were negative or downright derogatory. The Rebbe’s appreciation for individuals with special needs in terms of their potential and inherent worth was exceptional for the time, and perhaps even compared to current attitudes, as well.

I watched the video with the feeling of being an ‘insider’ to the issues of special needs children. I am the proud father of an autistic child, my 5-year-old son Levi. So when Kalman Samuels describes a house where you can’t keep certain regular household items on the table, or when Chana Sharfstein talks about the importance of hope for a special child’s potential, it immediately resonates. In our house, too, we know there are certain things you can’t just keep around. Like for example, markers — they end up being used all over the wall with a vengeance. At the same time, seeing Levi grow and develop on his own terms reinforces our hope for continued progress, which makes the frequent house-keeping disasters easier to handle.

Rabbi Yaakov’s son Levi sees the world from his father’s shoulders.

Two ideas in the video really struck me. The first is when the Rebbe writes, ‘Not to exaggerate expectations…yet giving guarded encouragement.’ Exaggerated expectations are one unfortunate way well-meaning people sometimes react to hearing a child has been diagnosed with autism. ‘Perhaps he’ll be a brilliant piano player or a human-computer!,’ they’ll say. Such sensationalist dreams are not only dangerous in increasing the likelihood of heart-breaking disappointment; much worse is that they substitute learning to connect with a child on their own terms for an idealized fantasy of who they might be.

I believe that children with special needs, much like the rest of us, deserve to be appreciated for who they are, with or without special powers. This requires endeavoring to help them develop to the best of their abilities, maintaining an optimistic outlook, but avoiding needlessly inflated hopes. ‘Guarded expectations’ in the Rebbe’s words.

The second intriguing idea is the Rebbe’s statement that people with autism ‘…relate to G-d as well as everyone else, and even more so. While they’re not busy with people, they’re busy with G-d.’ As the Rebbe goes on to spell out explicitly, individuals with special needs deserve the opportunity to practice Judaism as much as possible, for their relationship with G-d is no less than others. Indeed, the Rebbe says it is even more focused.

On a personal note, I have noticed something similar to the description the chazzan gives in the video for his son’s love for Mitzvot. Many things interest our Levi — like computers, letters and numbers, and animal noises. And many things don’t interest Levi — like blocks and most other toys. But his enthusiasm for anything Jewish amazes me. When, for example, it’s time for Havdalah (the special ceremony which concludes Shabbat), Levi drops everything, turns off all the lights in the house, and runs to bask in the glow of the Havdalah candle.

At first glance, these two ideas seem somewhat contradictory. If we believe that a person with autism, while seeming to spend a lot of time ‘in their own world’, is in fact communing with G-d, doesn’t this in and of itself create an exaggerated expectation, an overly idealized image of a person who may simply be limited in their capacity for person-to-person interaction?

I think the answer is that the Rebbe wants us to realize that being aware of limitations on the one hand, and believing in lofty potential on the other, are really meant to go together.

There is a famous story about the Rebbe’s performance of Tashlich one year. (Tashlich is a special prayer recited on Rosh Hashanah, near a body of water containing fish.) For many years, the Rebbe used to perform this ritual at a pond in the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. One Rosh Hashanah it was raining so heavily that the attendants at the garden assumed the Rebbe wouldn’t come, and so they locked the gate. But they didn’t know the Rebbe. Without hesitation, the Rebbe marched out into the heavy downpour, followed by a long column of surprised but determined Chassidim. What did the Rebbe do when he reached the locked gate? Simple. He climbed over the wall.

While most of us see limits as dead-ends, or at least highly discouraging, the Rebbe saw them as windows of potential — to go higher, grow, and discover more.

I don’t think the message is that we should necessarily ignore a limit we encounter; after all, the Rebbe used the very wall that stood in his way to climb into the garden! The goal, then, is to try and open our eyes to the possibility to be found within a limitation. Like during the Rebbe’s encounter with Yossi Samuels: while his parents felt alarmed at Yossi’s throwing the nickles given to him, the Rebbe saw this as a positive quality — the boy’s tenacity, which indeed was one of his greatest assets. And this was the Rebbe’s message to Chana Sharfstein as well: ‘What’s the fuss?,’ the Rebbe asked her. Instead of seeing only limitations, see the possibilities with your Zlaty. Work with her, give her the chance to grow as much as she is able. So too, instead of looking at an autistic person as simply limited in their social interaction, realize this limit makes them more open to their focus on G-d.

Seeing the potential within limitations is a profound truth, something the Rebbe both taught and personally exemplified. It’s a truth we are still working to grasp, to implement in how we see the world and its challenges. And in this way, the Rebbe’s vision continues to be ahead of its time; we’re still trying to catch up. But the Rebbe had full confidence we for our part would succeed in this, too. The Rebbe shared incredible foresight into the future — that it was only a matter of time before the world as a whole would come to see all the potential inherent within our challenges, transformed into actual, tangible good. May we see it with our own eyes soon!

News from UMatter: Suicide Prevention Month and Fall Programming

UMatter’s mission is to build community, friendship, and support for isolated teens by instilling within them an appreciation…

Overnight Success: Friendship Circle Summer Camp Brings Fun and Community to Those in Isolation

Swimming, boating and a talent show were highlights at sleepaway camp at North Star Reach Arts and crafts,…

Faces & Places: Friendship Circle Holds Virtual Walk4Friendship to Raise Money For Children With Special Needs

Friendship Circle’s community of supporters and friends were “Apart But Close In Heart” Sept. 6 for the annual…

5 Things to Know About the 2020 Walk4Friendship

The 15th annual Walk4Friendship will take place on Sunday, Sept. 6. of Labor Day weekend. These are five…

Friendship Circle camp is in session with extra safety precautions

(WXYZ) — You’ve likely seen the name Friendship Circle. And have seen the purple and white logo. Well,…

Friendship Circle camp for special needs children presses on amid pandemic with precaution

PINCKNEY, MIch. (FOX 2) – A day on the lake with friends – the kind of kinship so…