Torah portion: Learning Torah through the kid with special needs

The chiddush, that elusive new piece of wisdom that brings insight to my week, often comes from my students.
February 11, 2015

The chiddush, that elusive new piece of wisdom that brings insight to my week, often comes from my students. With fresh eyes and hearts open to the inspiration that life has hidden away for us, they never fail to amaze me with their chochma (wisdom). This week, three people — our rabbinic intern Dusty, a 12-year-old named Alex, and Patti, a master teacher — provided this week’s entre into Torah truth. 

Dusty Klass, a fourth-year rabbinic student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), is a rock star as Congregation Or Ami’s intern. Almost instinctually, she finds just the right key to unlock the teachings of Torah and provide that “ah ha,” chiddush moment. This happened for me as Dusty pointed out the wisdom in Mishpatim, this week’s Torah portion. 

Through Rabbi Dvora Weisberg, director of HUC-JIR’s rabbinical school in Los Angeles, Dusty discovered two kinds of laws in Mishpatim. First are casuistic laws, characterized by their “when X, then Y” structure: When a fire is started and spreads too far, then the one who started the fire must make restitution (Exodus 22:5). When you happen upon your enemy’s donkey wandering around, then you must take it back (Exodus 23:4). These laws, encompassing most of Mishpatim, present the proper way to react when something occurs. 

The second category of laws is more directive: You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger  (Exodus 22:20). You must not spread false rumors (Exodus 23:1). You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong … nor shall you show deference to a poor person in a dispute (Exodus 23:2-3). These laws are not case-specific. We are not told: “If you see a stranger, you must not wrong her,” or “When you hear a rumor, do not spread it.” Rather, we are told to “do this” or “don’t do that” in order to propel us to act in pursuit of higher principles. Forming the bedrock of Judaism’s beloved ethical laws, these laws goad us toward values-based living.

So Mishpatim tells us there are certain principles that transcend individual cases, but also that there are correct responses to particular occurrences. How relevant it seemed as I thought about 12-year-old Alex. 

Alex has full walk-in privileges to my office. At Or Ami, he just walks right in and no one, including me, blinks. Why? Because Alex was diagnosed with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and with significant social, behavioral and learning challenges. And because Alex has such a love of Judaism that his exuberance sometimes cannot manage social expectations. He loves his synagogue, so when he walks up on the bimah during services, we just smile and give a hug. 

Alex is learning Hebrew with master teacher Patti Jo Wolfson. No one — including his adoptive parents who invest so much energy into Alex — thought he could ever learn to read Hebrew, let alone become a bar mitzvah. But Or Ami, like most Reform synagogues, is committed to the principle that any child of a member who works to the best of his or her ability is entitled to a Jewish learning experience and to become bar/bat mitzvah. That’s the proactive principle, one of the types of laws that Dusty illuminated from Mishpatim, which guides us to treat each child with special needs, like every other child, as one created b’tzelem Elohim (in God’s image).  

The reactive type of laws shines light through Miss Patti, a patient teacher who thought ahead about Alex’s bar mitzvah preparation. Does he go into the congregation’s regular Bar Mitzvah Boot Camp program and then on to our regular bar mitzvah tutor? Will it work for him? 

As his mom, Joeli, explained, Alex is learning Hebrew only because we discovered, in the person of Miss Patti, the key to unlocking Alex’s ability to learn. Here come’s Dusty’s causality principle: the “if … then” of Mishpatim. If, because of Miss Patti, Alex learns when he hasn’t learned before, then we should build his bar mitzvah preparation process around that learning relationship. Reacting to the special needs of this unique kid, we respond by embracing his unique path, and changing our rules. 

Incidentally, Alex’s Torah portion will be a special one, Deuteronomy’s V’ahavta, which he will learn first to chant as a prayer, and then will rediscover anew in the Torah. V’shinantam livanecha (Deuteronomy 6:7 — “You shall teach it to your children”) has the quality of repetition. We repeatedly teach Alex this stunning piece of Torah so he can repeatedly remind us of our responsibilities. 

So that’s the chiddush — our responsibility to be both proactive and reactive in embracing one of God’s cherished children. At first Dusty thought this teaching was instinctual and obvious, but not everyone realizes that children with special needs, created b’tzelem Elohim, deserve the full embrace of our synagogues. So we must teach it again and again. 

Rabbi Paul Kipnes is spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas. His recollections about his Grandmother Esther’s bout with Alzheimer’s are published in “Broken Fragments” (URJPress, 2012). He and his wife, Michelle November, are writing a book on Jewish spiritual parenting. He blogs at rabbipaul.blogspot.com and tweets @RabbiKip.

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