Edited by Rochel Eisner
The world calls our children, "special children." The truth is, one shouldn't be speaking about special children, but rather special parents. Every parent who has a child with this sort of situation is singled out as a special parent by Hashem.
The Gemara in Maseches Avoda Zorah says, "Boruch Hamokom asher mosar olomo lishomrim." Hashem created the world for us to enjoy. Everything that Hashem bestows upon is for the good. He sends a child, a neshama, into a family. Every neshama is clothed in the body that Hashem has chosen for it. The parents of a child are considered his shomrim, his watchers. If there is anything special about the situation, it is Hashem singling out the special families. If we have a special neshama that needs extra attention and care--more or different shmira--that is a sign that we have been chosen by Hashem to be special families.
I can identify with you! I have a daughter who was born profoundly deaf and I know what it means to deal with a handicapped child. It may not be the worst handicap, but no handicap is the worst. Everyone that is part of Hashem's selection of special parents was selected as shomrim. No one should think that Hashem gave us a burden that we can not carry, a duty that we can not fulfill, or a purpose that we can not achieve.
In Parshas Shmos, Amram divorced his wife because Pharaoh made a decree that all male children were to be thrown into the Nile river. Amram decided that it was better to separate and not have children. Miriam, however, had a complaint. The Gemara in Sotah says that when Amram divorced his wife, it had repercussions throughout Klal Yisroel, for Amram was the Gadol hador and they all followed his actions. According to the decree of Pharaoh, those to be lost were only the males of Klal Yisroel, Miriam said, and by causing everyone to divorce their wives, Amram was decreeing death on all males and females.
However, Miriam's objections went further. She said that Pharaoh decreed that the males shouldn't survive in Olam Hazeh, but these neshamos would still go to Olam Habah. Rashi explains that in order for a neshama to go to Olam Habah, it has to pass through Olam Hazeh. Even if, chas v'sholom, there is a child fatality and the neshama is only here for a short time, that neshama has gone through Olam Hazeh, and it will therefore reach Olam Habah.
Rav Moshe Feinstein bases his psak in one of his tshuvos on this Gemara. A woman had a certain genetic illness, and her children only survived up to two years. She was told that none of her children would survive for more than two years. Should she continue to have children? Because of this Gemara, Rav Moshe paskened that she should continue to bring children into this world.
Why do we have children? Do we have children because we want to have nachas from them, to dress them up, show them off, and have good results in school? Is that why we have children?
We have children because we have an obligation to bring neshamos to Olam Habah. Based on this line of thought, Amram took back his wife, and the rest of Klal Yisroel took back their wives, all for Olam Habah.
Children come into this world with pure neshamos, striving to reach Olam Habah as pure as possible. I will tell you a secret: The more handicapped a child is, the easier it is to be a shomer. The more abilities our children have, the greater our obligation and the more complicated the process to watch and protect them. We are often uncertain how to deal with them, and we daven day after day for guidance from Hashem. Some of us are successful and some are not.
The Torah is teaching us the essence of life. Before enslavement in Egypt, before Klal Yisroel became woven together as a klal, before we learned all the basics of emunah, before we went out into the desert to accept the Torah, the essence and purpose of life was leading children to Olam Habah. If we can bring neshamos to Olam Habah, we have fulfilled our purpose. Are we guaranteed the merit of bringing every child that we have to Olam Habah? The less that the children are able to be exposed to the yetzer horah of this world, the more chances we have that this neshama will be able to reach Olam Habah.
The neshamos of our special children will reach Olam Habah. A lot of time and physical effort may have to be put in, but it is guaranteed that the child will reach its goal. Our job is to take care of the body that surrounds this wonderful soul.
There was a Jew in Gateshead, where I come from, who had a Down Syndrome child. As happens very often, he became very strongly attached to the handicapped child. When the child reached bar mitzvah age, he was able to put on tefillin and say a brocha. The father made a seuda and invited many talmidei chachomim. Rav Gurwitz, my Rosh Yeshiva, was invited to speak.
"It states in many seforim that today we are all gilgulim. Gilgulim are souls that have already been in this world before and did not achieve the perfection they could have achieved. If a person was an evil person, the neshama has to suffer and sit in gehinom. Sometimes, Hashem gives the neshama another chance.
The Vilna Gaon says that a neshama is given up to three chances. The neshamos are put back into this world to fix their mistakes. Every neshama that has come back to this world has to be given instruments to correct his wrongdoings. If there are many things that he has not achieved, he has to be given many tools. The less ability a neshama has, the greater the neshama. Therefore, shouldn't the parent of a child with fewer tools rejoice?
A child may have been in this world for only a month or two, but it is not a punishment to the parent. It is still a neshama. This neshama had to come back to this world and do nothing more then go through this world. Sometimes, the neshama came just to give a bit of nachas to the parents or other people."
This story has an interesting ending. The father, in honor of his son's bar mitzvah, took him to receive a brocha from the Chazon Ish. He made an appointment, and as he walked through the door, the Chazon Ish stood up. The father thought someone was coming in behind him, so he turned around to see if it was a Rosh Yeshiva, but there was nobody there. He said, "Rebbe, I'm just a simple Jew, please don't stand up." The Chazon Ish replied, "I'm not standing up for you; I'm standing up for your son. Don't you understand? He's from the higher neshamos of this world, this little child."
We have to understand the special present and honor bestowed upon us. When a person is given a child with great abilities, he can not know which way his child is going to go, and yet, he is so proud of this son who may lose his Olam Habah. It may be physically, emotionally, and financially difficult in this world to care for a child with limited abilities, but in the next world, it will be pure Olam Habah.
There once was a Jew who was constantly complaining to his good friend, "I have so many children, how will I ever manage? I comfort myself by thinking that Hashem will help, and when they grow up, they won't be such a bother to me and I will be able to go back to the beis medrash." The Brisker Rav heard about this and said, "This is very near to apikorsus. 'Olam chesed yiboneh.' This means that we are in this world to help others. The entire world exists on chesed. We all need chesed, and only those that are doing chesed are worthy of receiving chesed. This man is a fool. Here, he is given a great opportunity to do chesed, and he is waiting for and looking forward to a time lacking in chesed?"
The best time in a person's life is when he has to invest chesed in his children. When the time comes that children no longer need a parent's chesed, then the parent need to worry and wonder, "How am I going to survive?"
In summary, we need to stop speaking about special children; rather, we should be appreciating special parents. We are all special parents. Hashem gave these children to us, not because he wanted special children in this world, but because he saw the special parents who could take on the challenge of bringing neshamos to Olam Habah, pure and whole, and accept the chesed, in purity, upon themselves and all of Klal Yisroel.
Questions & Answers
Q. When someone gives birth to a child with Down Syndrome or a child with special needs, what do we say to them? How do we tell them mazel tov? Should we go to the shalom zachor?
A. The foundation that the Torah builds all our mitzvos upon is the mitzvah of treating others with sensitivity. All of us who have special children learn a great lesson in sensitivity. Sensitivity is something Hashem expects from a Jew in every stage in life.
A cousin of mine was a bochur in Ponovezh and he went to the beis medrash of the Chazon Ish to speak with him. There was noone else learning there, except for a few Bnei Brak kids, who were quite spirited. They were having a good time chasing each other, when one of the kids bumped into the Chazon Ish and knocked him down. The bochur began to scream, "I'm going to tell your mother and your Rebbe. There will be a great punishment for this!" The Chazon Ish stood there and listened quietly. When the bochur finished his tirade, the Chazon Ish said to him, "There is a laav in the Torah, "Lo sonu," do not oppress. This includes onaas devarim--hurting someone with your words--and this applies to children as well. A child is a person, not a creature that you can do with whatever you want. It is important to be sensitive to the feelings of every single person."
If you say one word that can hurt a person's feelings, you're transgressing a laav in the Torah. When a person has a child, does he want you to sympathize with him or does he want you to treat him normally? At this point, most people want a normal mazel tov. If you show that you don't know what to say, and are embarrassed, you will hurt the person. They are still parents. They may have problems, but they definitely don't want to be the pity of the town. When a person makes a shalom zachor, and it's known that he had a child with special needs, of course people should go and say mazel tov. All it takes is a bit of common sense. If you know that a certain person is not b'simcha, it is our job to strengthen and awaken that person and make him feel more confident about his child.
Q. When a child only has a physical handicap, and not a mental one, and he is fully alert, do all the aspects of the greatness of the neshama apply?
A. Yes. A handicap means that a child can not realize the full potential of a normal, healthy child. A handicap is called a burden. A physical handicap means that there are certain things he or she cannot do. In this way, it is the same as any other handicap. The child is limited in achievement and therefore has a higher neshama.
Q. What and when do you tell the siblings?
A. The answer depends on the ages of the siblings. Tell the siblings that there is a Master of the World, and this child is the way he is through no fault of his own. Hashem created him that way and we have to look up to him, do chesed with him, and be kind to him. Whatever we tell an older person, we have to tell children in their language, but children do understand. Children understand better than grownups and behave better than grownups.
Q. If a boy can't sit still, read, or speak, can he be brought to shul? What if he doesn't want to come?
A. Not wanting to go to shul has nothing to with the handicap; it is common with most children. If he can come to shul without disrupting, answer amen and sit quietly, then there is no reason not to bring him.
Q. If the child is an older boy and the only type of help you can get is a girl to assist the child or to send the child to a mixed program, what do you do?
A. You have to ask a posek. Sometimes, with a child that is handicapped, what they call the drive in this direction is sometimes stronger and more uncomfortable. It is not wise to have a girl assisting. You must use common sense. If the child is oblivious to the difference between a boy and a girl, then it doesn't matter.
Q. If the child is low-functioning and really doesn't understand where he is, should you still bring this child to a family simcha, as long as he is not disruptive? Is there a point for your children and other people to see how you're acting to your child?
A. If you're bringing your child in order to set an example for your other children, then it is fine. If not, and he doesn't know what's going on by the family simcha, then he might as well be at home, especially if he is going to be a special problem.
Q. What is the shiur hishtadlus to do for a child? If a parent feels he can improve the child's situation a little, should he run around from doctor to doctor and therapist to therapist? Is a person obligated to give up his own way of life?
A. That's a very good shaaloh. It depends on what outcome you can expect. I would say it depends very much if it's a physical, mental, or emotional handicap. Whenever you give a child more understanding, you have to know if that understanding is going to be good or bad for him. Chazal do say, even for healthy people, that the more knowledge you have, the more you know what you're missing. If all the child is going to get from that extra bit of help is to realize what he is missing, then there is no point. If the child will be able to help himself a little more, then it is worth the extra effort. A child who has no ability to look after himself and with training will be able to, then that is pikuach nefesh. There is no question. Whenever the effort is to help the child understand how to protect himself from danger or to call for help, then it is obligatory. When it is only a question of added comfort, then we have to be careful. You may be wasting a lot of time and the child won't benefit from it. With every therapy or with every treatment that you take, where will it leave this child? Are you giving the child a better quality of life or are you doing this to make yourself feel better?
Q. When you do see that a therapy is working and you are spending a lot of time with this child, how do you judge how it is affecting the other children?
A. I don't think it is clever to look after one child at the expense of other children. An expense doesn't mean that you can't afford a vacation. An expense means that you might be depriving the other children of what is theirs and they will be damaged by it. That's not a smart thing to do. It has to be a balance for the whole family.
Q. With our typical children, we have guidelines of what the father's role is and what the mother's role is, but with special children they sometimes overlap. What are the guidelines?
A. I'll put it very simply. The father's role is to make the mother's role as easy as possible.
Transcribed from a speech by HaRav Matisyohu Salomon, shlita
at the first annual Fathers' Evening - One Day at a Time, Lakewood , NJ