July 16, 2024
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We Should Accept the Differences in All of Klal Yisrael’s Children

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov tells of a prince who became mad and thought he was a turkey. He felt compelled to sit naked under the table, pecking at bones and pieces of bread like a turkey. All the royal physicians gave up hope of curing him of this madness. The king grieved tremendously.

A sage arrived and said, “I will undertake to cure him.” The sage undressed and sat naked under the table, next to the prince, picking crumbs and bones. “Who are you?” asked the prince. “What are you doing here?” “And you?” replied the sage. “What are you doing here?”

“I am a turkey,” said the prince. “I’m also a turkey,” answered the sage.

Little by little, the two become comfortable with one another, and gradually the sage encouraged the turkey-prince to put on his clothes, eat human food and, finally, join the rest of the family. In this manner, says Rebbe Nachman, the wise man cures the prince.

I think of this story often as I meet parents of children with autism. Every parent of such a child can easily empathize with Rebbe Nachman’s king, who is confused, saddened and desperate to help his son. By joining the child in his world, the sage first transforms himself, ultimately paving the way for the transformation of the child. For many parents of children with autism (often highly atypical children whose disability prevents them from relating to the world), his painstaking, exhausting approach is sometimes the only effective one.

Parents of children with autism, who want to reach their children must first learn how to enter their child’s orbit. They must join them under the table. We, as a community, must understand and be sensitive that this is unbelievably difficult and often terribly isolating.

It’s shocking that one child in every 68 children is now diagnosed with autism. And the Jewish community is not immune to this epidemic. Children affected by autism are challenging, unusual and sometimes distracting. But they are also beautiful, creative, loving and bright, and made b’tzelem Elokim, in God’s image. And they are ours.

I know many people don’t know what to do when they encounter a child or adult who doesn’t fit the mold, or who might seem out of control. Perhaps, instead of seeing a dangerous, uncontrolled combustion, we can begin to perceive their preciousness instead; something divinely given. Something for us—not just their parents, but the entire community to learn from, grow by and be open to.

Currently, autism is something that can’t be changed, but it is something that we can be changed by. Was the turkey-prince really cured by the wise man? Probably not. He probably always retained his unusual personality, probably always felt a little odd, may have even yearned to slide back under the table. But the sage’s wisdom made the prince feel welcomed and wanted. Perhaps the cure was found—not for the prince per se, but for those around him.

This Rosh Hashanah, as the Almighty takes an accounting of all of Creation, may we learn to be grateful and accepting of the beautiful differences in klal Yisrael’s children. And, in that way, we will all be blessed with a truly sweet new year.

By Rabbi Stuart Shiff

 Shana Tova from ALUT, The Israeli Society for Autistic Children.

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