Sunday, December 12, 2010

Judah, Joseph, Self-Revelation and Autism

The following were words of Torah that I was honored to share at the Bar Mitzvah of Jack Rosen, the magnificent son of my friends Wendy and Michael Rosen, as well as their son, Charlie.

Jack became a Bar Mitzvah this past Shabbat, Parashat VaYigash, at Bnai Joshua Beth Elohim in Northbrook, Illinois. Mazal Tov Jack, Wendy, Michael, Charlie and Jan.

These words are dedicated in honor of Jack and other Jewish children with Autism and to their incredible families who deserve the greatest support the Jewish community can provide.

The air is heavy with anticipation.  Emotions, already running high all morning, reach a crescendo of tension.  The speaker completes his impassioned plea for mercy, an edited retelling of a family story: a bitter tale of favoritism and selfishness, of jealousy and hatred, of love for a father and his inconsolable pain of loss.  Threatened with the possibility that he will be the cause of his father Jacob’s ultimate demise, Judah pleads with the listener for mercy and for the release of his youngest brother, the most beloved, Benjamin.  This morning, we read one of the most dramatic moments in the entire Torah, the moment when Joseph, now second only to Pharaoh in power and authority, reveals his true identity to his brothers.

Joseph the listener, identified until now to the brothers by his Egyptian name Tzafnat Paneach, is completely overwhelmed by Judah’s words:

א וְלֹא-יָכֹל יוֹסֵף לְהִתְאַפֵּק, לְכֹל הַנִּצָּבִים עָלָיו, וַיִּקְרָא, הוֹצִיאוּ כָל-אִישׁ מֵעָלָי; וְלֹא-עָמַד אִישׁ אִתּוֹ, בְּהִתְוַדַּע יוֹסֵף אֶל-אֶחָיו.  ב וַיִּתֵּן אֶת-קֹלוֹ, בִּבְכִי; וַיִּשְׁמְעוּ מִצְרַיִם, וַיִּשְׁמַע בֵּית פַּרְעֹה.  ג וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף אֶל-אֶחָיו אֲנִי יוֹסֵף, הַעוֹד אָבִי חָי; וְלֹא-יָכְלוּ אֶחָיו לַעֲנוֹת אֹתוֹ, כִּי נִבְהֲלוּ מִפָּנָיו.

Joseph could no longer control himself before all of his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone withdraw from me!” So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers.  His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh’s palace. And Joseph said to his brothers, “I AM JOSEPH!  Is my father still alive?”  And his brothers could not answer him because they were terrified before him.”
During their previous encounters, Joseph conceals his identity.  Only now, hearing Judah acknowledge their brotherhood and realizing that continuing the ruse puts Jacob’s pain and most likely death on his own shoulders, does Joseph reveal himself.  Until this moment, everyone, the brothers, Pharoah, those in the room, have one picture of who he is and what he can do.  Now, Joseph screams out, “This is who I really am!  I am Joseph!  I am not Tzafnat Paneah!  I am not who you think I am!  I am different.  I am human!”  Joseph, the whole person, is revealed.

The Torah tells us that Joseph “can no longer control himself before all of his attendants” or
לְכֹל הַנִּצָּבִים עָלָיו .  In other words, Joseph can’t hold back anymore in front of all of these other people.  That translation raises the possibility that perhaps if he was alone in the room for the entire speech, Joseph may have been able to hold back and not show himself but with everyone watching, Joseph simply crumbled.  One commentary understands this phrase to mean that along with all of his brothers and servants, the room was full of people coming to ask things of Joseph.  The combined pressure of his brothers, members of Pharaoh’s house, and all of these people with expectations of who he was simply overwhelmed Joseph.  Revealing himself, in this understanding of the verse, is actually a sign of weakness.  There are numerous commentators who give varying explanations for why this moment is so overwhelming for Joseph, why he chooses to show his true self at this exact minute.

For me and on this morning in particular, these three verses paint a very different picture.  Imagine that most people have one picture of you, of who you are, of what you are about, of what you can do.  Imagine that they have expectations based almost exclusively on what they see on the outside, what their first impressions are.  They have decided who you are.  Not you.  Them.  And then, in one exquisite moment, all you have to do is say your name and their picture of who you are completely unravels.    It transforms completely and forever.  It is no surprise then that the revelation can be terrifying for them.  For years, they were able to pretend that you did not exist, not as an individual and not as a category.  But now you have told them who you are and they can no longer deny your existence.  Imagine the power of that moment.

Sadly, in most places in the Jewish world, people and institutions do not see children and adults with autism.  Some choose not to see them, to not acknowledge in deep and real ways that there is autism in the Jewish community while others are simply unaware. Far too often, our synagogues, our Federations, our day schools and religious schools, our summer camps make it virtually impossible to know that there are children with autism in the Jewish community because we close our doors to their families:  the child is too different, too demanding, too expensive.  We deny their existence or we decide what they can or cannot do, who they are, what they are about.  And then, a moment comes and the child reveals himself and shouts out to the world, sometimes in phrases, sometimes in chirps and tweeting sounds, sometimes in silence, “I AM JOSEPH!”   “I AM A REAL PERSON!”  “SEE ME FOR WHO I AM ON MY TERMS, NOT ON YOURS!”  At that moment, of course the outsider is terrified - they are forced to confront their own limitations and their own nearsightedness.  And, at the same time, imagine how freeing it must be for the child to shed everyone else’s expectations and be who they know that they are.

On this morning, in this specific synagogue, with this specific family and friends, we are part of an exceptional revelatory moment.  Today, Jack shouts out to the world that he is a beautiful soul, a precious young Jew, the vessel that holds a warm and powerful Divine spark.  He announces that he is who he is, on his terms.  Other b’nai mitzvah talk about how they become a “man” on this day.  Today, Jack demands in his own sweet way that the Jewish community sees him, comes to know him, values him.  

What makes our Jack different from Joseph is that there is already a whole world that sees him as he is, that loves him for being exactly who he is, that shuns its own limited view of who he can be in order to embrace who he fully is.  From this bimah, I watch my friends Wendy and Michael, Charlie and Aunt Jan, beam with love for Jack, a love so powerful and deep that there are no words to describe it.  Everyone here today loves and values you Jack for who you are.  They don’t measure you against any other.  They love you for who you are.  Cantor Frost and all those who worked with you to prepare for this day love you, know that you are capable of so much, of changing worlds, and are so very proud of you.

This is a synagogue that welcomed Jack and his family when so many others could not or, honestly, chose not to.  Rabbi Kedar, who is so sad not being here today, was a visionary among rabbis who did not recoil at Jack’s autism but, rather, perceived the strong Godly spark that lives in Jack and in his family.  BJBE opened its arms and its doors and welcomed in an entire family where others were only willing to open the door to three, not four people.  In an era where we fret about our shrinking numbers, where philanthropists and organizations devote tens of millions of dollars to convincing those least interested in being connected Jewishly to do something, anything Jewish, too many institutions close their doors to families like the Rosen’s who want Judaism and the Jewish community in their lives, who want to give to and be supported by the Jewish community, slam doors in the faces of Jack Rosen’s all over the country.  Yet, BJBE, Keshet, the Ramah Day Camp, Camp Beber and Camp Yofi and others open those very same doors and are changed for the better because of it.  They are examples of how the Jewish world should be and I pray that others learn quickly from their example.

Jack, everyone here this morning that knows you loves you and knows how truly exceptional you are.  They have been blessed to see through a window that you opened into your soul so that they can see the sweet, smart, beautiful Jack that you are.  When I think about when that window opened for me, it was at Camp Yofi: Family Camp for Jewish Families with Children with Autism.  I was sitting at the pool with your Mom and we were catching up, sharing stories of growing up in the Chicago suburbs in the golden era of John Hughes’ movies.  And you and your dad and your brother and your Chaver, Asaf, were in the pool.  You would splash and sing and then you would dive under the water and stay there for long periods of time.  There, splashing in the water, there enveloped by the pressure of the warm, clear water, you allowed yourself to emerge, to shine, to blossom.  This was a new moment for me, not you, a moment where I saw a spark that could only be seen through the prism of the water.  It was the moment where I got to see you clearly, to see the fun spark of God in your soul.  It is a moment that I cherish and that I will never forget.  I know that Susan Tecktiel, Sue Kabot, Christine Reeves and the staff of Camp Yofi learned you at those kind of moments as well, that they too love you for who you are, and that they send congratulations and love to you and your family on this magnificent day.

And those who are here this morning that did not know you before are also changed for the better because they got to meet you.  Today you become a ben Torah, a son of Torah.  You said the Shema, you said the blessings over the Torah, and like Abraham our Father, you are a blessing.  And when you said the blessings, your glorious smile let us know that you understand what being Torah is all about, being a living examplar of good and of Godliness.

On the global Jewish level, let today be one where those standing in the virtual room, with all of their expectations, be shocked into seeing that they are obligated to recognize Jews with autism as full members of the community and that they are thus obligated to provide a space for them equal to all other Jews.  Let this be a day of reckoning for those organizations who, pressed in difficult financial situations, may look to reduce or eliminate funding for special needs programs.  Let this be an uncomfortable day of reflection, of being forced to acknowledge and open the doors fully to all of those who are like you Jack.

And for those of us in the actual sanctuary, sharing this moment with the קדוש ברוך הוא - The Holy Blessed One - let us enjoy this moment of celebration together for a truly beautiful and exception soul who shouted out so quietly and tenderly, “I am Jack.  I love the tradition of my parents.”  And after Shabbat, let’s make sure that the rest of the Jewish world learns how to celebrate you as well.

Shabbat Shalom.

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