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April 18, 2014 / 18 Nisan, 5774
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What I Learn From My Super Son

Rabbi Cohen and Yedidya

Rabbi Cohen and Yedidya

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There is always some tension surrounding Super Bowl Sunday as one decides whether to watch the big game with friends or go it alone. I have a friend who makes a compromise. He watches the first half with friends – or, as he explains, “the novices,” those who aren’t “real” fans – but the second half, generally the more intense part of the game, he watches alone.

For me, the choice is an easy one.

I watched the first quarter of the big game this year with a huge football fan and my very special football friend. His name is Yedidya and he is my eldest child. He is seven and a half years old and he has Down syndrome, but more importantly, he loves football. He loves it so much that he sleeps in his Dallas Cowboys uniform (confession – I helped him pick my favorite team). He also can’t wait for his issue of Sports Illustrated to arrive in the mail each week – hopefully with a football player on the cover.

I enjoy streaming a game on my computer while Yedidya sits on my lap and always roots for the “red team.” Sometimes we are lucky enough to actually have a team with a red uniform playing on the screen before us, like San Francisco in this year’s Super Bowl. Sometimes not, but that doesn’t dull his enthusiasm for the tackling, kicking and general movement on the screen.

Football is a raw game and it can stir genuine emotions. In the wildcard round of this year’s playoffs, Robert Griffin III (RG3), the Redskins’ star rookie quarterback, wearing a red uniform, went down with a terrible knee injury. Yedidya immediately pointed to the screen and poignantly exclaimed “Daddy – sick!” He was genuinely pained by the spectacle of the player sprawled on the ground in obvious agony.

Yedidya isn’t the most articulate child just yet, but his purity of spirit and sensitivity are very evident when it comes to feeling the pain of others. Watching RG3 crumpled on the ground, his articulate father could not have expressed the moment any more succinctly, meaningfully or compassionately.

This past Shabbos, I was singing a niggun at my Shabbos table and was gently tapping my drinking glass to the beat of the song. Somehow, the flimsy glass completely shattered and cut my finger. The adults at the table realized quickly that it was a surface wound and no glass had penetrated the finger. Yedidya ran to the phone, picked it up and began saying “ambulance.” He doesn’t know how to call 911, and I strongly prefer that he doesn’t pick up the phone unnecessarily on Shabbos, but the sentiment was incredibly touching.

I recently finished reading a life-altering book – Daring Greatly by Brene’ Brown. It discusses having the courage to be vulnerable and how this perceived “weakness” can actually transform our lives. At a point in the book, the author quotes Pema Chodron, a spiritual guru, who writes: “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.” (This concept is also expressed in the title of another interesting book, The Wounded Healer, by Henri Nouwen.)

I thought of my special son when I read these lines. Maybe subconsciously, because he is “wounded” or “imperfect,” he is able to express real compassion and potentially be a healer of sorts. It’s ironic, because many don’t perceive a developmentally disabled person as their equal.

I would posit that at the core, developmentally challenged individuals may even be superior to the typically functioning. They sometimes lack the inhibition or cognition to hide their vulnerability, but that is what makes them our “equals” in critical moments. Imagine spontaneously expressing intense care or feelings for another while being completely indifferent to how it will be perceived by those observing. Imagine being free from all the silliness and protocols that often dictate our lives.

The more esoteric sections of Jewish tradition confirm this analysis. They teach that the disabled possess a higher or more pure soul than others. Their physical or intellectual blemishes remove a barrier to their spiritual charisma, which is not the case in typically functioning people. The great mid-twentieth century scholar Rabbi Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz, popularly known as the Chazon Ish, would regularly stand up for such individuals.

Leading up to the Super Bowl, an intriguing story about an avid fan came to light in the sports media. Matthew Jeffers, a senior majoring in acting at Towson University in Maryland, wrote an e-mail in late 2012 to the now-Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, his favorite NFL team. It was a perspective of his struggles with skeletal dysplasia, in relation to the struggles of winning a Super Bowl, with the ultimate lesson that life is not fair, that it “does not care about three-game losing streaks, or four-game win streaks…. The only disability in life is a bad attitude…. A positive attitude is the most positive combatant to life’s misfortunes.”

February has been designated North American Inclusion Month (NAIM) by Yachad, a division of the Orthodox Union devoted to supporting individuals with special needs. What inspires me every day is the attitude of people like my Yedidya and Matthew Jeffers. They live life without fear and they confront new challenges each and every day. They have terrific attitudes. In this month, when we focus on shifting our attitudes toward the special-needs population, our task may just be to emulate these exceptional people in our midst.

Many of us have unfortunate attitudes. We fail to fully be there for others because we are too busy being focused on ourselves and our issues and problems. We let the vicissitudes of life too easily knock us down. It takes a spiritual giant to truly feel the pain of another and to be an “equal” in the truest sense.

My son’s disability does and will allow him to continue to give others this terrific gift of compassion and shared humanity. I choose to watch football with Yedidya over others because he not only makes me laugh with his enthusiasm and descriptions of the game but also because he teaches me profound lessons about the game of life.

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About the Author: Rabbi Dovid M. Cohen, Esq., is the mara d’asra of the Young Israel of the West Side in Manhattan. He can be reached at cohen.dovid@gmail.com.


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