I have just come from our annual Ohel-Bais Ezra Shabbaton and I must share a few thoughts, insights and feelings. Some of our guests have been coming to us for almost twenty years; others are new friends or relatively recent acquaintances. They are all developmentally disabled, Down syndrome or have other mental challenges. Yet, they offer moving divrei Torah at our joint seudos, express touching gratitude for the little we do for them, and uplift us all with their simple but profound faith. Perhaps most importantly, they seem to all have a natural simchas hachaim – a joie de vivre – that belies the seemingly limited lives they live. Some of them have minimal jobs, some have dreams of marrying someday, others are just happy because they have spent a Shabbos with a real family and laughed with rosy-cheeked children and perhaps even held a baby.
I am always moved by their genuinely beautiful middos and try to respond to their expressions of hakoras hatov with my own declaration that they have done more for us than we could ever do for them. But this year, I was asked by a few of our newer members, “Who are these people really? What kind of neshamos do they have? What is the point of inviting them year after year? What can we possibly get out of these visits and what is it that we should be learning from them?”
In order to begin to understand, let us imagine that we are visitors as well. We are privileged to be in the humble home of the Chazon Ish in the early 1950s. No one on earth knows it, but these are the last few years of the gadol hador’s life and he has little strength even to get up from his bed. He certainly is not standing up for anyone who enters the room. All of a sudden, a father and his Down syndrome bar mitzvah son enter the room. The Chazon Ish arises with great difficulty, yet with a broad smile on his face. The father looks around to check who else has entered, causing the Chazon Ish’s rare display of honor.
“No,” the tzaddik serenely explained. “I am standing for your son, who is one of the holiest souls in our generation” (Maaseh Ish 1:230).
At the boy’s bar mitzvah, Rav Leib Gurwicz, rosh yeshiva of Gateshead, turned toward the beleaguered parents. “Ashreichem,” he said. “You are fortunate that Hashem has sent you such a lofty and precious neshamah. As its earthly guardians, you should consider yourselves fortunate to have this soul in your family.”
Rav Moshe Shapiro zt”l also once offered consoling words to one of his talmidim upon the birth of one of these children. “Every soul,” he wrote eloquently, “is sent to this world to be mesakein (rectify) something. Most people must primarily ‘fix’ themselves and perhaps by extension something of the world around them. However, some very special souls do not require any tikkun at all for themselves. Therefore, their sole purpose in this world is to perfect others around them and the world in general. You have been given an incredible gift. This child has the power to evoke from you potential greatness that nothing else in the world could possibly bring forth. Please try to receive this tremendous beneficence with great love. Help him fulfill the sacred mission that he has been given. May Hashem help you, too, to fulfill your share of this holy charge” (quoted in Ohel Moshe, “Nechamah,” page 214).
Other gedolim have also responded to what is usually viewed as a tragedy in similar terms. A woman who had given birth to a disabled child was cruelly taunted by a thoughtless neighbor. “All these years we thought you were a thoroughly righteous woman, a tzadeikes. Now, however, heaven has shown us who you truly are.” In her horrendous pain, she ran to the mashgiach, Rav Yechezkel Levenstein, and poured out her aching heart. Rav Levenstein soothingly informed her, “If you knew how good this child is for you, you would be dancing in the street from joy.”
Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein, too, was approached by a couple who had a similar experience. Their heartrending question was: What did they need to correct in response to this “message from heaven”? Rav Zilberstein’s response was, “Correct? This is a great zechus you have received. Why should you have to correct anything?” (Ohr Doniel 3:144).
So what, indeed, are the beautiful middos these special people have and how are they mesakein the rest of us?
Rav Yoel Schwartz (Special Education From the Torah Perspective [Hebrew], page 52) records the mother of a Down syndrome boy’s uniquely sensitive antennae toward the people around him: “Our son is a living seismograph in assessing the ‘good-heartedness’ of those around him. He will not go anywhere near a person who is cruel-hearted or tough, even if bribed with candy or other things he would enjoy. On the other hand, if someone with a loving heart enters the room, he will immediately run up to him and remain with him for a long time.”
We might say that such a soul is our own monn from heaven. When monn fell onto the tent of a tzaddik, it fell within reaching distance. The further it fell from others, the more they needed to improve in their own lives. Our first encounter with any of these souls is actually a mirror held up to our own. This is one of the ways in which these neshamos reach out to our somewhat jaded ones, improving us if we allow them to touch us.
The second benefit we can receive from these heavenly messengers is more subtle, but crucial to our spiritual development. There is a well-known story with a contemporary gadol, which was recently enhanced by the question of another. Rav Chaim Kanievsky related that a ninety-year-old woman had recently been exhumed from a cemetery in the United States. Although she had been buried for five years, her body was perfectly preserved, as if she had just passed away. Upon Rav Kanievsky’s request, the members of the astonished chevra kadisha related the woman’s story.
Ninety-five years before, this woman had travelled as a young girl with her parents and sister to America. The sister died as a child and she herself received a blow to the head when she was seventeen, rendering her a living vegetable. She remained in this condition in a nursing home for 73 years, until she passed away at the age of 90. Since she died in a Christian nursing home, she was buried in their cemetery, but when a Jewish activist heard her story, he arranged for burial in Eretz Yisroel and she was found to be fully intact five years later. Rav Chaim Kanievsky immediately explained the amazing phenomenon. “The Gemara in Shabbos (152b) quotes the posuk in Mishlei (14:30),” he declared, that “envy brings rotting of the bones.” The Gemara concludes that one who has the bad middah of jealousy will eventually have bones that rot. Rav Kanievsky went on to explain that presumably, 90 years ago in America, there was no one for her to envy, since there were very few religious Jews there and she had little interaction with the gentiles. Then she became a vegetable and, of course, was rendered incapable of any emotion at all. For this reason, her bones did not rot and her body was perfectly preserved.
At this point, one of Rav Kanievsky’s close confidants, Rav Eliyahu Mann, asked him an interesting question. The Gemara only states that the bones of one who has never experienced envy will not rot, but this woman’s flesh was untouched by decomposition as well. Rav Kanievsky concluded that, indeed, this case proves that the Gemara meant that the flesh will not rot as well, in conjunction with the bones.
After considering this for a moment, Rav Kanievsky related a story of his own. “My grandfather, Rav Aryeh Levine,” he told his spellbound visitors, “used to tell the story of the Kovna cemetery, which had to be completely exhumed and transported elsewhere. Two of the corpses were found to be completely intact: that of Reb Leib Kovner (a noted tzaddik) and a certain soldier. What was the soldier’s zechus? Despite having been drafted into a powerful gentile army, he had always refused to eat non-kosher food. Finally, the non-Jewish officers decided to force-feed him, but he would not swallow and ended up choking to death, dying a martyr’s death.”
Rav Chaim cried bitter tears as he described the soldier’s petirah al kiddush Hashem. Rav Kanievsky concluded his reminiscence with a quote from his father, the Steipler Gaion zt”l, that in Morocco, when the cemetery was uprooted, the graves of the Tashbetz and the Rivash brought forth perfectly preserved bodies.
When Rav Mann repeated the wonderful story of the old woman to Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman, he asked a powerful question, which sheds light upon our discussion: “If all this is indeed correct, why do we find that children who lo aleinu pass away at just a few months old usually have bodies that decompose. Surely, they, too, did not experience any envy.”
When Rav Kanievsky heard his question, he responded, “This is not a problem, since a baby at that age has no daas – cognitive thought – to begin with, where there is a zechus for not having had any jealousy. However, that woman, who was capable until the age of 17 of envy, but obviously had none, earned the madreigah of such purity of spirit and therefore merited that her body never putrefied” (Ohel Moshe, Bamidbar, page 548).
We can certainly also conclude that our friends from Ohel – and all their similar brethren – could feel envy of those who seem to have so more than them. But they don’t. Their simchas hachaim is genuine, their tov ayin is genuine, and their joy in everyone else’s families and homes is authentic and deeply felt. That is surely worth learning from and emulating. As I bid them a gutte voch on Motzoei Shabbos, I whispered mori v’rebbi to my newfound teachers and mentors.