Thousands of families from Israel and around the world have celebrated bar mitzvahs at the Western Wall, the Jewish world’s most important place of prayer. Each week, the Western Wall plaza fills with joyous, emotional families who have arrived to celebrate their sons’ bar mitzvahs at the site, the source of Jewish inspiration and yearning for centuries, and a symbol of the fortitude and strength of the State of Israel.
In a special ambiance of unity and holiness, a young bar mitzvah boy and his family have an unforgettable experience as a new link is created in the eternal chain of generations — that of Jewish families in particular and the Jewish people as a whole. It’s no surprise several generations of the same family have celebrated their sons’ bar mitzvahs in this way.
Thirteen years ago, my family and I started marching on our own special journey when our son Gershon was born and diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Last month, we also arrived to the wall to celebrate our Gershon’s bar mitzvah. With Gershon, it’s hard for me to say “bar mitzvah” because he is not yet ready for the responsibilities of the Torah’s commandments, and we don’t really know when he will be. Yet it was a special day. Emotional, but special.
What can I say? We cried. A bar mitzvah celebration is supposed to be the day when a young boy becomes a “man,” a person responsible for his actions. For us, this is not the case. Gershon is still a young boy, and will probably be so for a number of years to come. I was standing there at the Western Wall, the holiest place for the Jews, blessing G-d who had given us this gift.
Gershon was very excited when he was wearing his tefillin and took the Torah out from the ark next to the wall. The plaza was filled with families who had come to celebrate their sons. Gershon was among them, like them, no different.
As autism has become more common over the past 20-30 years, those with autism and their allies have tried to move beyond awareness to acceptance. But there’s still not a lot of talk about joy. Too often, there’s a misconception that acceptance means only accepting behaviors that are considered non-standard, or accepting that a person with autism may not hit the same milestones as one with doesn’t have autism. Yet acceptance can lead to moments like Gershon’s bar mitzvah service.
I looked at this week’s Torah portion, The Torah states that Isaac loved Esau and Rebecca loved Jacob. Isaac loved Esau for being the hunter and providing the family with the tastiest venison. Rebecca, on the other hand, loved Jacob for being quiet and staying close to home studying and learning. We can understand why Rebecca loved Jacob. However with Esau, how could Isaac put hunting above the importance of studying the Torah?
Isaac loved Esau precisely because he did know who Esau really was. Perhaps Isaac saw that Esau was missing some of the building blocks for long-term success. Perhaps he knew that he had to invest more of his time in Esau than Jacob purely because he felt he didn’t need to worry Jacob, who had all the traits to make it through college, graduate school and find a good profession. Others may have dismissed Esau as the black sheep, but Isaac praised and loved his son for all that he could accomplish. Did Isaac try to change Esau? We don’t know what Isaac’s intentions were, but we do know he loved Esau for his abilities and the person he was. He saw who his child was, saw what he needed, and invested his time in making sure Esau stayed on the right path. Did Isaac’s love and attention have an immediate and direct effect on Esau? Esau remained exactly who he was.
Gershon said the blessing on the Torah so well because of the strengths he derives, in part, from autism. He smiles at the people he loves because they accept him as he is. We believe the end goal of acceptance isn’t a life you trudge through, pushing away your wish that your kid could be typical. Rather, the goal is to find the joy, and to celebrate your child, as he is.
You should love your children unconditionally, for that is surely how G-d loves us.
Yossi Kahana, a native-born Israeli, is the director of Jewish National Fund’s Task Force on Disabilities, an umbrella and coordinating body for the various JNF programs and partners for people with disabilities in Israel.