It had to be HaRav Moshe Shapiro Shlit”a.
When I contemplated whom to honor as sandak for our newborn son with Down syndrome, Rav Moshe was the obvious choice. It wasn’t just because I desired a great and distinguished rav for the role. But it was because he had demonstrated sensitivity to our specific plight.
When you are told that your bechor will have a life-long cognitive disability, you grasp onto whatever you can for chizzuk. For me, it was a mazel tov letter written years earlier by Rav Moshe to Rabbi Baruch Rabinowitz, celebrating the recent birth of a child with Down syndrome named Nota Shlomo.
A Profound Letter of Comfort
Rav Moshe wrote that Nota Shlomo was a “wonderful gift,”a gift with the potential to transform the lives of his parents and bring forth wellsprings of love from the depths of their hearts. He also alluded to how the elevated soul of such a child is sent to this world not for its own sake, but rather to help those around it.
I would be lying if I told you this line of reasoning was comforting at the time of my sons’s birth. But what I did find comforting was the message that every little step Nota Shlomo would advance in terms of attaining human dignity, deductive reasoning, and developing independence would be considered an accomplishment equivalent to conquering an entire world. Rav Moshe even commented that “halevei”that everybody understood this most fundamental principle of Yiddishkeit. This insight, coupled with the palpable love and concern expressed by Rav Moshe for his beloved but anguished talmid years ago, made him the clear choice for our sandak.
Now, years later, two things still stand out about the bris of our Yedidya Shlomo. The first was the embrace Rav Moshe gave me when he arrived at the simchah, and his comment, “I promise you he will be a typical child.” The second was Rav Moshe accenting and highlighting Yedidya’s immense potential by proclaiming quite loudly “gadol”when my rosh yeshiva, Rav Yaakov Friedman shlita, read the words “zeh hakaton‘gadol’yehiyeh”during the kerias hashem.
In my office, I have a big picture of Rav Moshe with baby Yedidya Shlomo on his lap at the bris. I often look at the photo, and it brings me back to a different time in my life. I remember the trepidation, the tears, the questions, and the search for comfort.
I often look at the photo, and it brings me back to a different time in my life
I realize now that sometimes in life, you just have to “flow”with a situation, and resolution just comes by itself at some later point. There’s never any great epiphany, it just somehow becomes okay – and even normal– with the passage of time. It is like what I once heard a mesader kiddushin say under a chuppah of an older single who finally married a girl he had dated years earlier, “Mah shelo yaaseh hasechel yaaseh hazman–what intelligence doesn’t accomplish, time will.”
What is Typical Anyway?
The beauty is that Rav Moshe’s brachah has come true.
I’ll admit that when he “promised”Yedidya would be a typical child, I wishfully thought that he was predicting that he would genuinely be“regular”or even “cured.” But while Yedidya still has Down syndrome, he is certainly typical of other children – which is, of course, what Rav Moshe meant.
It is a great nachas to watch Yedidya come to understand and apply concepts that he gleans from his environment. It is a great joy to us, even when his formulations of certain terms or expressions are less than perfect. He enthusiastically calls shabbatonim that he participates in a “Shabbos-a-tone,”and often inquires when the next one will be. Yet, he clearly is excited and understands that this is a unique weekend away from home exclusively for him. As Rav Moshe said in his letter, an iota of deductive reasoning, “meivin davar mitoch davar,”is to capture an entire world.
Once, Yedidya’s amazing rebbe, Rav Yehoshua Fulda of Washington Heights, asked to speak with me. He shared how often Yedidya will intentionally answer wrongly to a question in a most playful manner. Rabbi Fulda was proud of this chicanery and cunning. It shows him that Yedidya is “typical,”since he obviously knows the correct answer, but wants to keep his rebbi on his toes. Rabbi Fulda also shared, with tears in his eyes, that he has never seen such an intense bond between father and son. I can’t vouch for the veracity of his statement, but I was touched that the wellsprings of love that Rav Moshe spoke of in his letter are palpable and apparent to a regular observer.
Accepting or Rejecting Challenges
A few years ago, a family we were acquainted with didn’t take their baby home from the hospital because it had Down syndrome. It took much time and chizuk until we were able to convince them to take ownership of the child that Hashem gave them. I even understand that in some extremely rare circumstances, it could be beneficial to have someone else adopt the child. Obviously, this depends on the level of challenge coupled with the ability of the parents. However, such a weighty decision raises the very significant philosophical issue of whether or not Hashem “mistakingly” gifted this child to this couple. Does Hashem really make mistakes?
There are tremendous opportunities hidden in these challenges. There seems to be a proliferation of diagnoses in the world today; many children have some sort of unique disposition–behavioral or otherwise. Our task as parents is ultimately just to move our own child, whether “typical”or“special,”to the next ‘rung’ on their ladder. If we focus intently on this goal alone, we have done a service not just for our child, but also for the world at large.
My family has a strong focus on education and academic achievement. I was accepted to an Ivy League college and graduated from a top-five Ivy League law school.
My Yedidya probably will not collect those degrees, but he can accomplish ‘degrees’ of even greater significance. He will earn the degrees of simchah, nachas, and self-esteem, helped by parents who understand fully what their tafkid is with their unique child.
In our uber-complex, technologically sophisticated society, there is something so refreshing, almost jarring, about the simplicity and purity of the special emissaries that Hashem surrounds us with. He sends them to re-orient us, inspire us, and help us grow. Will we?
Rabbi Dovid Cohen is the New York Regional Director of Community Engagement for the Orthodox Union and the Director of Community Engagement for Yachad, a thriving global organization dedicated to addressing the needs of all Jewish individuals with disabilities and ensuring their inclusion in every aspect of Jewish life. He previously served as Rabbi of the Young Israel of the West Side from 2006 until 2015. This essay is an excerpt from Rabbi Dovid Cohen’s book, We’re Almost There, Living with Patience, Perseverance and Purpose (Mosaica Press 2016).
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.