Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Expectation of Perfection

“Anyone dealing with children who are mentally retarded should start from the basic premise that the retardation is in each case is only a temporary handicap and that in due course it could certainly be improved and even improved substantially. This approach should be taken even if it is contrary to the specialists in the field since this is the precondition for greater success and will stimulate more intensive research.” Rabbi M.M. Schneerson in a letter to the director of Coney Island Hospital

There are two kinds of tzadikim referenced in the Talmud. One is called a complete tzadik (tzadik gommer) and the other is referred to as an incomplete tzadik (tzadik sheh aino gommer).

The complete tzadik is also referred to as a tzadik v’tov lo or a more literal interpretation would be a tzadik to whom it is all is good and the incomplete tzadik is known as a tzadik v’rah lo or a tzadik to whom there is the opposite of only goodness attached.

To begin our discussion let us understand that the tzadik is a person who comes into the world as a complete and perfect neshamah and therefore has nothing in terms of his neshamah that he needs to be fixed or polished.

All tzadikim are in this world to cause others to do good.
This is a level of existence that is beyond our simple understanding of the world. This is a person who never in his/her life did one thing that was hepech to Torah. Not once!

Yet a perfect tzadik even though he possesses a sitra achra or an "influencer" from the side of evil whose job it is to confuse and distract and cause the person to err, does not. And yet this sitra achra is converted to actively doing good and fully participating in good all the time for as long as it is with a complete Tzadik. Whereas an incomplete tzadik who possesses a sitra achra or a yetzer hora is so called primarily because his Yetzer is asleep and is forced to endure a passive role in all of the goodness that this tzadik participates in even if it is not as an active participant.

A complete tzadik who is also known as a tzadik for whom it is all good is easier to comprehend. After all if it is complete then there does not seem to be any contraditcion. Therefore the tzadik who is the opposite of good or “rah lo” on the surface is a bit more difficult to fully understand.

This incomplete tzadik then comes into the world as a perfect neshama who is not here for himself but rather to cause others to do good. So how does an incomplete tzadik who is v’rah lo cause others to do good.

A child born with Down syndrome is a perfect neshama in a less than perfect package. This then could be seen as an example of the definition of a tzadik v’rah lo.

The Chazon Ish z”l was reported to have said concerning children born with Down syndrome that they did not come into this world for the purpose of tikkun (healing their character defects). Instead, by bringing out the best or the opposite in others, their very existence allows others to reach greater spiritual heights if they deal with the situation in a positive manner.

Every baby born is an individual and a child born with Down syndrome requires a wide range of flexibility in order to achieve his potential.

Who better to fill the role of an incomplete tzadik or a tzadik sheh aino gommer than a person born with Down syndrome?

People born with Down syndrome have an IQ that falls mostly within the mildly to moderate range of intelligence. Children are definitely educable and educators and researchers still do not know the full educational potential of people with Down syndrome. This includes even the least intelligent amongst them.

Today with the initiation and involvement of children with Down syndrome in the infant stimulation programs and the early intervention classrooms we are seeing adults reaching goals of self fulfillment never thought possible just a few decades past.

There are approximately 5,000 infants a year born with Down syndrome and up until about 15/20 years ago the vast majority of those born to the orthodox Jewish community were given away.

In the religious Jewish communities there is a significantly higher incidence of Down syndrome births than is found in non religious or non Jewish communities.

The primary reasons are that within the orthodox Jewish circles there is rarely an amniocentesis performed since the option of an abortion is out of the question in this religious milieu.

Responsibility, however, is an important factor not to be overlooked in this discussion.

We shrink or expand our horizons based upon our ability to succeed in these moments of challenge. We must act responsible and cause others to also take proper advantage of these opportunities.

The child you have just given birth to has been born with Down syndrome and while that sounds like the end of the world...it is not!

We all feel as if we have failed, or we are being punished publicly, or have suddenly become deficient or different because we have given birth to a baby born with Down syndrome.

We all experience doubt and feelings of firsthand failure. We have just entered into the world of the unknown. Anything within the realm of the unknown is frightening.

And yet if this tzadik whose potential intellect is in question causes us to do good by their mere presence shouldn’t that be enough in and of itself?

The next fearful step is, “should we keep it quiet?” “In whom shall we confide?” “Should we keep the baby?” "Should we place the baby or dump the baby?" "Should we include the baby and accept the baby?" "What exactly am I afraid of?"

Thursday, March 6, 2008

"It is not the absence of sight that is the problem; rather it is the lack of vision." Helen Keller

Giving a child with Down syndrome, disability, or imperfection away may allow for an easier life for the parents, but what about the other family members who are never consulted?

A family is a shared experience. It is an inheritance and a legacy. That legacy is cumulatively greater than one moment of convenience based upon a one individuals choice. A family, especially an orthodox family, always involves, the parents, the progeny, and the Aibishter in their lives.

A Jewish film producer once said, “Mother, father, and G-d represented the core of Jewish family life. Every home depended on the warmth and care given by the mother, the strength and security given by the father, and the omnipresence and omnipotence of G-d. Mother was there when you were ailing or hungry or cold, father was always handy to protect you and G-d was available for everything.” (Dore Schary)

“Just as it is a mitzvah to put on Tefillin every day, it is a mitzva for a father to be involved with his children every day.” (M.M. Schneerson)

We all need family whether as a child or a parent. For those of us fortunate enough to have a large family to rely upon and to share our joys and burdens by being a member of that family are truly blessed. The fullness we all feel by having an extended family as well as a large natural immediate family gives us an identity, a sense of self, of closeness, support, and variety.

It is precisely this access to the dynamics of a large family that is denied the baby who is given away in the very earliest stages of life. How much more so does a retarded child need to feel this acceptance and the security that goes comes with it, rather than literally being lost, alone, and rejected from the very first stages of life.

Keeping a child born with Down syndrome can only enrich each and every family member’s experience. This is accomplished by eliminating the myths, the fears, and the unknown, and then by further embracing, understanding, and meeting those challenges head on. This is how we all benefit.

There are clearly times when family members simply cannot cope with certain situations. There are times when a parent may actually think and wonder, G-d forbid, why this child was born. Generally speaking orthodox Jews don’t entertain such disparaging thoughts. Not until, that is, they are challenged to the very essence of their collective being.

As the Gemora, (Magilla, 16A) reminds us, “These people (the Jews) have been compared to sand and stars; when they fall as low as the sand, and when they rise as high as the sky.” Between the stars and the sand, orthodox Jews also have had bad thoughts. Specifically, this is in reference to the attitudes harbored toward children born “differently abled” or more commonly, handicapped.

All of the evidence proves that the absolute worst thing that can happen to a baby immediately after birth is to be separated from his natural maternal and paternal parents. The second worst negative factor in a child’s early development is to be placed in a facility, communal home, or institution. The most desirable setting then is always with the biological family at home in the presence of their natural siblings.

What is more joyous than having a baby? And what is more fraught with potential for conflict?

Say what you want about the probability of winning the lottery but I’ve never heard the story of the guy who won the second tier of the lotto and complained about the windfall by asking to pass it on to another without even sampling some of the windfall if only for a short time.

Can’t you hear the reaction now, “Oh my gosh I just won $175,000 but I entered the lottery to win $90 million, oh my gosh, why me? Why did it have to be me? I don’t think I can handle this. It’s going to be too much for the family to handle.”

This is partially because we do not see life granted to us by G-d as equal in value to money.

Childbirth no matter how much we think we can control it, is still more like a lottery, even though the grand prize is a gift from Above.

As Dore Schary says, “childbirth is one of the greatest shared moments in the lives of mothers and fathers and babies, offering an infinite number of possibilities as the potential. There are those segments of the process that are observed, monitored, and regulated and there are those aspects of the process over which we have not control and less insight.” The only way by which religious Jews have found to best cope is with the use of prayer and recitation of Tehillim (Plalms) in order to effect or influence outcome. And we know these tools work.

These are the windows to heaven according to the Baal Shem Tov (1689-1760 The founder of the Chassidic movement). And if I might add here so are our children, windows to heaven. When G-d sends us a child He is also sending us the special instructions as to how to handle the situation. He wants you to have this child; all you need do is pray and listen closely for the answer.

Just as there are no two people the same so too there are no two birthing experiences that are the same. Every baby goes through a birthing process that is similar only, however, in that every baby descends through a series of internal events ultimately presenting to us as an external dependent being. It is here that all of the similarities end and the uniqueness of this living event begins as life.

G-d does not make mistakes when creating human beings. Only human beings, through independent thought, speech, and action, make mistakes through ignorance. Put another way, everything and everyone is perfect in His eyes; It is our eyes that need “ophthalmological spiritual” correction.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Very First Step is to Learn to Accept

Acceptance emanates from an inner strength that we all have. It is not always a revealed strength until it is tapped. The courage to draw upon this energy is to overcome the fear of the unknown. This hidden strength then is the beginning of the march toward acceptance.

In order to allow this new found strength to surface we must each allow for a change in our thinking and our actions. This is the most difficult step of all in the process of these new beginnings. After all we have spent a lifetime building up these time saving habits that have served us well up until now.

It is always easier to reject something that we do not understand than to find out really what it is and learn to accept the gift that was given to you.

This kind of a change will only occur if there is hope and acceptance included in the formula. Hope and healing are also bound up in a much less rigid and a much more flexible reality.

We are a nation who has suffered at the hands of the other nations because of their realities of the world. The parent of a child born with a disability has now achieved this unenviable position of being able to see the world as a not yet completed reality.

This journey begins with the birth of a baby. Not just any baby but a baby whose very life by definition is a life altering birth. The family is suddenly thrust into a center stage situation. Most families will avoid this spot light even when life is going well. This is not necessarily always a fact yet it certainly feels that way when confronted with the potential for a negative peer pressure.

With each successive call placed to you to find out how everyone is the paranoia surfaces. Does this person know yet? Should I tell them now or should I wait. Let’s test the waters and see how they will take it?

The response to a simple “mazel tov” can suddenly become an extremely anxious and complex greeting.

Normally these greetings are casual and almost rote after a child is born. Normally there are no issues to address after a birth. However, with the presence of an infant born with Down syndrome everything is immediately confusing and challenging. There is a sense of your privacy being invaded.

In order for life to return to normal you feel the need to withdraw back to what was normal. It is necessary to understand that a baby who is born with a disability will, in time, quietly grow up out of the lime light. Few people really care. And fewer still really understand. There is an expression that Israeli’s like to use that comes from the Torah and that is, “every beginning is difficult.” In other words after a while it will become routine yet in the beginning it is very hard.

Soon this child, around whom so much of your life is now revolving, will develop into a fully integral thread in a diverse fabric known as family and community.

Children who are born with disabilities grow up with hopes and dreams just as their peers do. And soon they will become adults just as we are. They will have neighbors and be neighbors, they will have friends and be friends, and they will be coworkers just the same as we are.

Even if a biological family finds a good adoptive family who will accept and care for their baby this is none the less a rejection of the infant. This is a self serving rejection as well. After all the infant and G-d did not make this choice. And lest there be any error in the thought process G-d does not make mistakes about these things.

We are taught from an early age to negate our desires and to lower our level of self importance. To embrace the humility that is life.

As we become adults we confuse our daily striving in the work place with our real purpose which is the performance of good deeds. We tend to mitigate our chesed and other spiritual pursuits.

When we are challenged with a child born with something we do not see as part of our normal existence we allow the negative feelings of rejection to surface rather than to allow accepting and vulnerability.

It is a simple formula. When confronted with a negative stressor find a suitable substitute or eliminate the stressor all together.

Keep in mind however that this is not a stressor. This is a “chailek Elokai meMaal Mamash.” This is a piece of Hashem in actuality. (See below)

When Menachem Mendel of Vizhnitz (1830 - 1884) found out that his favorite child, a daughter who had recently married and resettled in the Holy Land with her new husband, had taken ill he asked to see the mail daily. Thus he was able to stay abreast of her condition albeit two weeks later.

His anxiety was tremendous yet he patiently awaited the news via the post on a daily basis.

This reporting continued on a regular schedule until about a month into the letters arriving reporting the progress of the illness during a particular period of a health setback the post did not arrive one erev Shabbos.

The rebbe asked his chassidim to return to the train station just prior to Shabbos to see if perhaps they had overlooked the missing epistle.

Again they returned only to report that the letter had for sure not arrived.

With the beginning of Shabbos the chassidim began by comforting the rebbe that he will probably receive two letters on Motzei Shabbos.

This still did not seem to comfort the rebbe.

As the Shabbos came to a close on Saturday evening the chassidim noticed that not only had the rebbe not been himself for the entire Shabbos but they also noticed that the rebbe was actually crying.

The chassidim became very subdued and many of them remained so even as the Shabbos ended and even as the two letters arrived informing the rebbe of his daughters sudden improvement.

The rebbe sat down at the “tish” (table) on Motzei Shabbos for the Melave Malka (the time immediately following the Sabbath set aside for gathering together and to try and extend the depth of the spirit of Shabbos into the work week.

It was at that moment that the rebbe told the chassidim that they are making a mistake.

He informed them that they erred if they think that he is asking them to do something he himself cannot do. For example to not allow personal pain to disrupt Shabbos or to accept whatever happens as coming from Heaven by not crying or allowing yourself to be distracted.

He told them that if they believe that he was distraught over his daughter and for not having received the post prior to Shabbos then again they were mistaken.

He asked them if they remembered a woman who lived on the edge of the town? They all nodded.

He asked them if they remember that during her illness that the rebbe himself went to her house and cut the wood she needed and made the soup she required and that he personally cleaned up the house and cared for the ill woman’s daughter during the entire illness? Again they concurred.

He continued, do you remember that after a very short period that the daughter recovered? They all responded in unison.

The rebbe now went on to explain that on Shabbos he came to a realization that he was on a lower level of spiritual development than he realized he was on up until then.

He went on to explain that everyday he receives letters asking for prayers and blessings for people, their children and their families.

It took this period of illness to happen to his own daughter to make him realize that “to love another as oneself must be fulfilled literally.”

Since my daughters’ illness was of greater concern to me as compared to what I felt for that woman’s pain whose daughter was ill even though I helped her I understood that I was lacking. As further proof of this the rebbe went on to explain that, “I also felt more for my daughter than I did for those for whom I am asked to pray for. I now understood that I was lacking and that I had to correct this. And that made me cry.”

It is this level of love that we must have for our fellow. The Rebbes’ intense grief made him realize that he had not yet attained this level.

To love and care for someone else’s pain on the same level as you would care for your own child is a level few of us could even hope to be aware of let alone attain or to literally actualize.

(Based upon a kabbalistic concept, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi’s [1745-1812] doctrine of the “two souls.” The Devine soul and the Animal soul. The animal soul is the vital principal that stimulates the physical body, the life of the body. The Devine soul of a Jew is a part of G-d above indeed. {Tanya beginning of Chapter 2}. It is completely independent of the body in the sense that it exists before its coming into the body and it survives the body after the body’s death. The Divine origin of this soul while residing in the body and the animal soul to rise above them and act in defiance of the natural dispositions of the individual. {Nissan Mindel, The Philosophy of Chabad, volume 2, Brooklyn, NY, 1985)