The Super Human Unmasked
Essays 2020 / Finalists
In this essay, I’d like to bring out how Chassidus views special needs and how to create a relationship with them. Although the best the world can say is “we’ll try to give him the best life he can have despite his lackings, and we’ll work with what little we have”, in this essay I will demonstrate how the Rebbe taught that those with special needs have a special mission of their own. They’re not sub-human but super-human – they’re not lacking in any way, rather have very special strengths and qualities that most of us lack.
I have always been apprehensive of Down Syndrome kids, for not knowing how to relate to them. Recently my brother was born with Down Syndrome and my apprehension grew into a fear of not having a close relationship with him, as with the rest of my siblings. It was only exacerbated by being “comforted” numerous times that Down Syndrome children are happy people and have a winning smile. Are they but an adorable spectacle from the vantagepoint of “normal” people? Why sweep under the rug the challenges and limitations that will be part of his life? I don’t want to be merely a spectator of his life,-rather I want to have a true relationship with him. I want to be and experience with him, and “enter his world” so to speak.
(Though I focused specifically on Down Syndrome because that is my situation, most of what chassidus teaches is relevant to all forms of special needs and physical handicaps.)
The Super Soul
We can look to the Torah for clarity about any issue, and regarding this topic, like many others the Torah is way ahead of the curve. The Zohar which was written over a thousand years ago (long before society began using the term special vs. retarded) addresses the topic of all forms of handicaps, focusing on their special qualities.
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai teaches the spiritual essence of a physical defect in the Holy Zohar. “When the moon is rendered defective… all the souls that are issued, although they were all pure and sacred, are flawed. Since they emerged at a defective time, whichever place these souls reach are crushed, and suffer pain and afflictions… While the body is flawed, the soul inside remains the same as before….”1
Because this kabbalistic concept is not easily understood, the Third Lubavitcher Rebbe explains it for us. The Divine Presence, similar to the moon, has periods when it is shining strongly as well as periods that are shadowed and dark. Some souls are conceived in heaven at a time when the Divine Presence is dark and concealed. Therefore the soul becomes a carrier for an element of the darkness. The soul itself remains pure and complete, and the darkness it carries only becomes expressed when it’s enclothed in a body. As a result the body is physically broken, has disabilities, and limited physical or mental function.
G-D chooses only the most special souls strongly connected to Him, to go through the above process, for He has a special mission in mind for them. In general the task of a Jew is to release sparks of G-Dliness that are trapped in physicality through observing Torah and Mitzvot. As a result the sparks are elevated, and reunited with their source, within the Divine presence. However the higher the spark of G-Dliness is, the lower it falls into the darkness of physicality, some too far for regular people to reach. That’s where the special souls come in. They are able to come in contact and work with darkness since they have some of the darkness themselves. They are an elite group of soldiers waiting in ambush, their bodies perfectly camouflaged into the surroundings plagued with bad and pain. They catch evil by surprise, and release the sparks of G-Dliness that had been held in captivity.2 In fact the Rebbe once comforted the new parents of a Down Syndrome child saying, “These are my generals. Don’t worry”. 3
The Rebbe takes the concept of special souls in broken bodies a step further. He explains that in truth, individuals with handicaps and special needs are not missing any abilities. They actually have them in a stronger way. For example, an individual missing his sight, in fact has the essence and spiritual power of sight shining unusually strong within him. It is so intense and therefore unable to be contained within the vessel of physical sight.4 Indeed the lack of a physical limb or faculty reflects on the existence of that power within him, stronger than within anyone else.5
What we perceive as bad actually originates from a high level of G-Dliness, love and good (higher even than obvious good). Yet our world doesn’t have the vessels to contain it or the ability to appreciate it as such. As a result we experience it negatively, as pain. We see this idea played out in what we’ve previously discussed. The high sparks of G-Dliness are stuck in the darkest corners of the world, special souls are enclothed in a broken body, and the eye that can’t contain the intense power of sight.
There are those who accept their pain with joy, the same way that they accept good, because they recognize it is in fact an even greater good. They appreciate that through their suffering they can connect to a higher level of G-Dliness, and value a close relationship with Hashem over having an easy, pleasurable life.
In the era of Moshiach, the ultimate redemption from exile, “the sun will be removed from it’s shield”. Meaning the high and hidden G-Dliness will become revealed and will finally be appreciated as good. Consequently, individuals with special needs and handicaps will no longer be seen as such. Instead everyone will see them for who they truly are, as special souls with a close connection to G-D. Additionally those who accepted their suffering with joy in exile will merit a reward of special light and connection with G-D from what was previously concealed solely for them.6
Every day in our prayers we fervently request the coming of the final redemption. That era will be characterized with only good, even the high G-Dliness experienced as pain will be openly appreciated as good. Now we should look towards that future, and how we will see the essential special souls of those with disabilities. Accordingly it will help us recognize their special souls even now, despite the fact that it is not appreciated by all yet.7
Individuals with Down syndrome are known to be happy and joyous people, despite their physical limitations. There was a study done on “The self-perception of Down Syndrome individuals” (to be explained more at length). Many participants expressed how happy they are with their life and challenges. “If everyone would be as happy as me that would be great”, yet another said, “I don’t like it, but I deal with it in a positive way.” They clearly embody the ideal of taking on their suffering and limitations with happiness, and connecting to G-D through it. As the Rebbe once remarked about individuals with autism, that “when they are not busy with other people they are busy with G-D.”8 Therefore, when the final redemption comes, individuals with Down Syndrome will surely be among those whose pure and special souls will be revealed. Even more so they will experience the special light and closeness with G-D that was previously hidden.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe held a unique stance and advocated for individuals with special needs at a time when they were being closeted away in institutions. He taught that we must see their identity and essential G-Dly soul vs. only their abilities or lack thereof. In fact one thing humanity has in common is we all have a G-Dly soul which was created in G-D’s image.9 Although we are all unique, with different capabilities, each carries the image of G-D with their own abilities. Therefore disabilities show us how to value the soul inside as opposed to physicality.10 Moreover each individual has infinite value and is compared to a small world due to their soul. Indeed Adam for a period was specifically the only human being existing on earth, indicating how irreplaceable each individual is.11
The Rebbe was known for His unconditional love for every Jew. He taught that when we meet people different then us, we can’t let the differences come between us. There is a lesson to be learned from the yearly half shekel donation the Jews would bring in the time of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. On its own it is incomplete until joined by the half shekel coin of another. The only way to be a full “coin” and achieve our fullest is when we unite and complement each other. When one loves another in a unifying way, then both of them are one together with G-D. When that’s the case there will be not merely tolerance or accommodation to the other, rather natural inclusion.12
Additionally the fulfillment of Torah and Mitzvot is a matter of Jews joining to make a whole. There are 613 commandments in the Torah, yet not all are applicable to everyone. Neither does anyone possess the abilities to fulfill them all. Thankfully G-D doesn’t demand beyond the capabilities of an individual. Consequently each Jew is only obligated to contribute what they are able towards the combined effort of all Jews keeping the 613 commandments.13 Every small deed is valued and needed for its completion and no matter what the achievement, G-D treasures the effort of one trying to the fullest of their ability.14
Although individuals with special needs are physically limited in many ways, so is everyone on this planet. They have limits just like we do, their capabilities are important just as ours are. Often the mental faculties of those with special needs are limited, and nonetheless have other abilities above average.15 We ALL have a job to make this world a better place (whether through 613 commandments or 7 Noahide laws), each of us with our own strengths and potentials including special needs individuals.16 The Rebbe made mention of this in correspondence with psychologist Prof. Feurstein, “Never give up on anyone, believe in others and see their potentials and successes.”17
Relatively recently society coined the term special needs as a more respectful way to refer to retarded individuals.18 Although this was not the intention, the term special is an accurate description of their situation.19 However, society still sees the needs which are special (AKA abnormal and lacking). Whereas they are actually special for their divine soul, special gifts, and the power they possess to overcome their disabilities and achieve great things.20
The Importance of Jewish Education
The Lubavitcher Rebbe had a progressive mindset clearly seen through His guidance and teachings regarding special needs individuals. Studies done only relatively recently address how to treat and deal with them and insight into the manner in which they experience the world. Many discoveries correlate the Rebbe’s position over three decades ago. In this section a fascinating study will be explained and then compared with guidance of the Rebbe on how to approach individuals with special needs.
A study was done on the “Self Perception of Individuals with Down Syndrome”. The researchers found that most were happy with their lives and had good self-esteem. Among other things, it was found that religion was linked to, and affected the happiness of a percentage of participants. Interestingly, when they were perceived by their parents as high functioning, they felt more fulfilled, and felt they helped others more. Whereas parentally perceived functioning had strong repercussions, it was found that actual functionality hardly made a difference to their self-esteem. On the contrary, when parents viewed their child as having many learning disabilities and health issues, the children thought negatively about themselves. They liked their looks less and thought their siblings got more attention than them. Additionally, out of the small percentage of individuals with Down Syndrome who weren’t happy with their life, most were either out of high school, college or a job.21
Three decades ago the Rebbe instructed that a child with special needs should be treated just like ordinary children, where action and optimism is essential.22 Furthermore just like every child requires an evaluation and personal approach, in order to reach their full capabilities, how much more is it necessary for children with special needs. When interacting with them, as with any child, one should be certain to:23
- Ensure the child doesn’t feel like a “case”/burden
- Make sure to give them what they need, not what you want them to have. 24
- When one has the attitude that the handicap is only temporary or can improve (scientific advances are being made all the time), they will sense it, and be motivated to exert the effort needed for improvement. However one should only encourage within the realm of possibility, so as not to create false hopes within them. (Study: when parents perceived them as higher functioning they actually did better in areas such as helping others.)
- The Rebbe pointed out that many limited individuals made great contributions to society. He suggested giving them positions of leadership. Additionally, a test should be created to discover their aptitudes at a young age, so they may be assisted in developing their talents. Similar to the motto of Professor Feuerstein, a prominent psychologist, “We believe in shaping the person by accessing the healthy parts.”
Furthermore Jewish Education is of vital importance for children with special needs. Especially since at a young age every small thing has a strong impact on their future. For them, having a Jewish identity is important in itself, as well as being therapeutic. For example the Rebbe advised the parents of an autistic individual to put a charity box in his room, and upon doing so their son responded well and made noteworthy developmental progress in a short time.25 (Study: Religion played a role in the happiness of individuals with down syndrome.) It could be detrimental for a child to feel singled out because of his handicaps, and miss out on a Jewish identity. They should be taught and enabled to fulfill Torah and commandments just like their family and friends (no matter the level of observance). Regardless if they understand the commandments, it provides them with a sense of belonging, stability, and helps them identify with those close to them.26 (Study: sadness among Down Syndrome individuals was more common when out of a school or job system. It seems the Rebbe is offering Jewish identity as a solution, to generate the sense of belonging through every stage of life.)
Summary and Practical Application:
I found that the chassidic approach to special needs is simultaneously spiritual and practical. It elaborates on foundational concepts which should be adopted as a mindset, while clearly specifying ways to connect to these individuals. It is important to recognize that these individuals are super humans. They have pure, untouched souls, their bodies are limited only so they may fulfill the elite mission G-D designated for them. Their big potential and intense powers are higher than “normal” people. As opposed to seeing their limited body, view their super souls, and remember the day will come when it will be revealed for all to appreciate.
With that mindset I now can connect to my brother through:
- Understanding that I’m not superior or better than my brother, rather he is someone for me to respect, look up to, and learn from.
- Looking out for where his aptitudes and potential lies, and motivate him to do his best. Please G-D he will sense my faith in him and respond in kind by fulfilling his potential.
- Joining him in viewing others as he will. As opposed to valuing external health/appearances, should instead see their G-Dly soul and have faith in the innate good of humanity. Each is deserving of love and assistance.
- Searching for ways we can complete each other. When I complete him, it should be in a respectful manner. Even more so I need to be open to him completing me in ways that I am lacking, and in things I can’t do myself. When we both need each other and have a give and take relationship it will lead to a deeper connection.
- The Rebbe explained that the observance of Judaism provides ways for special needs individuals relate to their family. When the opportunity arises for him to do Mitzvot, especially ones that he relates to, I can connect to him through it. (Ex. going to synagogue to pray together, or delivering hot meals to the sick with a smile.)
- Joining him in his inner joy and optimistic attitude, even when things go wrong.
Truthfully it is hard to change a mindset. However the powerful concepts I learned and wrote about here has already had a huge impact on my perspective of my brother and his genetic condition. I am looking forward to utilizing these methods of connection and forming a deep relationship with my brother. I hope that others can learn from this as well and be empowered to build a true relationship with special needs individuals. May we merit the final redemption speedily, when my brother and everyone like him will be revealed as the superhumans they truly are.
1 זוהר: וישב קפ“א ,א
דרך מצותיך: איסור עבודת כהן בעל מום 2
3 Meeting between the Rebbe and Mr. David Mayer
חלק ל”ב שיחת ש “פ תזו”מ 4
5 שיחת מצוייני ישראל
6 תניא פרק כו
7 שיחות קודש: פרשת ראה מבה״ח אלול תשל״ו
8 Meeting between the Rebbe and Cantor Joseph Malovany
9 Rebbe video- Love your fellow as yourself.
שיחת מצוייני ישראל 10
11 Book: Inclusion and the Power of the Individual- By Ari Sollish
12 Rebbe Video: Love your fellow as yourself
13 Correspondence between the Rebbe and Dr. Robert Wilkes
היום יום: כ “ט אב 14
15 Correspondence between the Rebbe and Dr. Robert Wilkes
16 Rebbe video: Love your fellow as yourself
17 Correspondence between the Rebbe and Professor Feurstein
18 Book: Inclusion and the Power of the Individual- By Ari Sollish
19 Correspondence between the Rebbe and Dr. Robert Wilkes
שיחת מצוייני ישראל 20
22 Yechidus with Mrs. Sharfstein
23 Correspondence between the Rebbe and Dr. Robert Wilkes
24 Rebbe video: Love your fellow as yourself
25 Meeting between the Rebbe and Cantor Joseph Malovany
26 Correspondence between the Rebbe and Dr. Robert Wilkes