As the new month of Elul begins, I, like many others, begin the process of soul-searching and introspection that prepares me for the Yomim No’raim—the Days of Awe—of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I, like many others, go through the requisite atonement by saying s’lichot daily, heeding the sounds of the Shofar during Shacharit, saying Vidduy, and asking for others’ forgiveness directly. The process is rather cut-and-dry, and its yearly repetition, especially after 50+ years, begins to feel vapid. We are all familiar with the three-part recipe of T’shuva, T’filah, and Tzedakah (repentance, prayer, and charity) that we are told softens the harshness of Hashem’s decree, but at a certain point we need to ask more pointedly, “What do I—I specifically—need to do differently in order to truly atone?” After all, the process of repentance is supposed to be a personal one—just like prayer is supposed to be. Like davening, chazal may have given us a blueprint, but it is up to us to build the house. This awareness of the need for individualized atonement challenges me to begin thinking about the uniqueness of my need for atonement and how this uniqueness should inform my pursuit of seeking forgiveness, both from others and from Ha’kadosh Baruch Hu.
As usual, I take my cues from the world around me. Each time I am puzzled by a challenge, some divine guidance shows me the way. My son Matthew is four weeks into a new position with a non-profit organization in Maryland that provides community-based services to adults and children with autism, and lately our conversations have focused upon his experiences and education in this new field. Autism, briefly, is a developmental disorder that affects a person’s communication, social awareness, and physical behavior in myriad ways; in most cases, this disorder is present from birth. Individuals diagnosed with autism are often referred to as “on the spectrum” because the disorder manifests in such a variety of ways that no two people with autism behave in exactly the same way. Through his training and education on this disorder, Matthew was introduced to this statement: “If perfection is the singular determinant of a person’s value, then all of us are valueless.” Much of the emphasis in his organization is on building awareness about how individuals with autism are capable contributors to society despite their disabilities.
Because autism and its community of providers, families, and diagnosed individuals is so unique, and because autism handicaps areas of life that are so valued by society—namely communication and social responsiveness—in order to work effectively with individuals with autism, a practitioner has to appreciate each person’s gifts and talents; he or she must dig below the diagnosis to find individual traits to celebrate. My daughter Tara, who is a special educator in Manhattan, has the same challenge; her students are people, not just the labels “ADHD,” “Emotionally Disturbed,” or “Reading Disabled.” Teachers and parents of children with special needs understand this dichotomy profoundly: the child is your child first and his or her disability last. What is true about students with disabilities is this: they are no less smart, talented, or able to succeed; it is, however, the strictures of the environments we fabricate around these individuals that highlight their disabilities.
It is because our society values two-way communication, acute social awareness, and “typical” behavior that autism is a debilitating disorder; it is because schools insist that young boys and girls with a lot of energy sit quietly and attentively in their desks for eight straight hours that ADHD is a disorder; it is because we insist that all children learn to decode language at the same age that reading disabilities are diagnosed in kindergarten. Now, this is not to say that none of these is in fact a disorder and that none requires treatment; that certainly is not the case. When the absence of certain abilities—such as the ability to control impulses or participate in two-way communication—inhibits a person’s chances to participate and succeed in the world, then this is a debilitating disability. However, the environments we create in schools, on jobs, and in society highlight many of these disabilities instead of allowing us to see the talents, alternative approaches, and gifts that these individuals truly possess. An educator or parent who works with individuals with special needs, recognizes rather quickly that a “one-size-fits-all” approach will not work; what it takes to effectively enable an individual with disabilities to succeed in this world is flexibility and a willingness to try new things, to break molds, and to highlight abilities and strengths instead of harping on handicaps.
All of this brings me back to Elul and my personal quest to meaningfully atone during this month and enter the new year of 5773 revitalized and committed to breaking old habits. Whether overcoming disabilities or being “neuro-typical,” each of us is a unique and unprecedented person; none of our sins is the same, the way none of our prayers and aspirations is identical. As an example, what may be a large sum of charity for one, is a mere drop in the bucket for another. What may be a source of ka’vanah for one, is a distraction for another. How, then, can each of us atone through the same formula of T’shuva, T’filah, and Tzedakah? How can prayers uttered by rote and the maintenance of vapid forgiveness-asking routines work year-in and year-out? Each of us must take the time during this month of repentance to uncover true acts of chesed, commit to contributing more than requisite amounts of tzedakah, davening with more ka’vanah, and truly repenting for our misdeeds by not recommitting them again and again. If we refuse to delve deeply into our souls, then we are just like a society not so long ago, who believed those with disabilities better keep a “cap in hand” because all they’d be good at is begging on the streets. We need to be willing to embrace academic diversity and support those who struggle in our gashmiyut (worldly) environments, and we need to be willing to try novel approaches to our T’shuvah in O’lam Ha’zeh (this world), so that each of us can merit a’ruchot yamim v’shanim (long life) and an O’lam Ha’ba (Afterlife) filled with closeness to Hashem. Chatima Tova.