Sunday, June 21, 2009

Jerusalem Snapshot: The Unexpected

I had a late evening yesterday - so decided to take a taxi back home.

As the cab pulled to the curb, I felt two ten shekel pieces and one five in my pocket - 'twenty-five shekels?' The driver made a face: 'it's at least 35.' 'Let's do the meter,' I responded. Best way not to be a freier, loosely translated as sucker - go with the meter.

'Anyway,' the cab driver confided, 'I've been riding around for an hour for this fare.' Whatever ambivalence I felt about my failed attempt at a deal abated - 'good I thought, let him at least have a decent start to his day' (the fare, in the end, was 29 NIS).

I never went to a proper ulpan to learn Hebrew - so I have an abiding sense of gratitude to Jerusalem cabdrivers whom I credit with my Hebrew. I learned French - oddly enough - not from the French teacher in Avignon during the summer of 1982 who taught Sartre's Huis Clos, but from the 12 year old girl with Down's Syndrome, of the family with whom I was staying.

So after the initial snarling, the driver turned more cordial: my 'ma shlom'cha' - how are you? - broke the ice. Since I'm travelling to London in a couple of days - and early in the morning - I thought I might ask him to drive me to the airport. The cost is about 225 NIS which is a big fare in a bad economy. His car, a mercedes, was clean and safe - so I was considering it.

We waited on line for the light to turn into my neighborhood - Bayit Vegan. There's a separate traffic light for the straight-ahead traffic, and another for the left-turn lane. We were behind a motorcycle: when the straight-ahead light changed, the motorcyle started forward; though the left-turn signal was still red. Because of the construction for the long-awaited light-rail on Hertzl, it's a long wide turn. My driver turned to me and said with alarm - 'he's passing the light!' He even honked twice; but the motorcyclist did not hear, or did not heed his warning. The motorcycle proceeded slowly, but determinedly along the arc of the turn; I saw the oncoming traffic. The cars coming down from the other side of Hertzl were accelerating. We both looked, watching for the unfolding of the inevitable: the loud crunch of the impact sent the motorcyclist flying into the air - the motorcycle was shattered to pieces. I gasped.

'Ata roeh?' 'You see?,' said my driver. I'm sure he was equally horrified, but he gave the appearence of calm. 'She killed him' - he said of the driver of the Mazda that had smashed into him. A crowd gathered. Miraculously, the man was stirrng. That was my first thought - he's alive.

Then I saw the woman standing by the side of her car. 'We should stop,' I said - 'he ran the light; it; it wasn't her fault!' 'No, it wasn't,' he agreed.' So let's stop,' I said - 'we have to tell the police what we saw.'

I was imagining the horror of the woman who struck the man. She had done nothing wrong, and suddenly out of nowhere, this.

'I have seen dozens of accidents,' my driver said. 'If you call - leave it,' he advised - 'you'll be dragged in for hearing. It's a tircha - a tremendous pain.'

I arrived home, called the police to tell my story. It turns out - my daughters were returning from the Jerusalem forest from the pool about an hour later - and the police were still there. The motorcyclyist had - miraculously - survived the crash, but the consensus was that the woman had run the light - after all, 'look what she had done!'

I called the police again - 'are you writing this down? Will you please tell the women who was driving the car that I saw?' I thought of course of the injured man, but also the loneliness of the woman not knowing, perhaps thinking that it was her fault, the suffering of the burden imposed on her by circumstances she had never considered. And then imagined what her her husband might be saying to her - no matter the strength of her convictions.

I don't know what lesson to learn from this, but I decided - sometimes one has an unexpected insight into the soul of someone, even a stranger - to find a different driver to take me to the airport.

Friday, June 19, 2009

OMT and the New Technologies

Yesterday, a graduate student of mine committed the horrendous (and unforgivable) faux-pas of asking whether I had written my dissertation on a typewriter. I answered: 'yes, and I wrote my undergraduate thesis on papyrus; you can see it - with the Magna Carta - at the British Museum.' Truth be told, I wrote my thesis on a portable (so-called) Leading Edge which weighed-in at twenty pounds, and had a memory - someone correct me if I'm wrong - of 20mb.

So I thought this would be an appropriate time to once again announce OMT's presence on twitter, and the latest development, my own facebook page.

Discussions of the virtues of the new technologies are, I've already gathered, symptomatic, of ignorance of their potential.

So I'm all in - hope to see you there!

(I had hoped to have a couple of nice clean facebook and twitter 'buttons' available here; but... I haven't quite figured out how to do that yet.)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Seeing is Believing? Think Again!

The twelve spies make their way to Eretz Canaan. G-d didn't say 'check out the land and see if you want it,' but when the people came to Him, He said, 'I'm not commanding you to survey the Land first, but if you want - go for it.'

So they did, twelve of them. Before they went on their mission, Moses who know something was awry, turned to his young charge, formerly Hoseah, and gives him a special blessing, as well as a new name, Joshua. G-d had an extra letter yud in his alphabetical storehouse - he had taken it from Sarah, formerly Sarai; so, through Moses, he gave it to Joshua. Joshua was then hooked up to the tradition - it became part of him. While Caleb, with no such protexia, makes a short side trip of his own, to Hebron. He went to the site of the tomb of the patriarchs - where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah are buried. As our sages explain, Caleb did not simply have an extra day on his tour - he went to pray. But why at Hebron? and how did that save him from the bad council of the spies?

Hebron is described as seven years older than Egypt's capitol, Tzo'an. But our sages point out that the city that Ham built for his youngest son Canaan could not have been built before the city he built for his eldest, Mitzrayim or Egypt. So Hebron took precedence over Tzo'an not - as the simple meaning of the verse suggests - because it was older, but because it was more praiseworthy. It was not seven years older, but seven times better.

Obama lingered at the pyramids recently; he couldn' t get enough of Paris. It's unlikely - this is not a political statement - that he'd spend much time in Hebron. Our sages tell us there is no place in Israel more barren and rocky than Hebron - for that reason it was set aside as a cemetery. The ugliest terrain in the Land of Israel - why, again, did the tour bus stop here? Tzo'an, by contrast, is the choicest real estate in Egypt - not only the center of commerce and government, but like G-d's garden, a hybrid of Manhattan and East Hampton. And yet, Hebron was considered better.

So the two, Joshua blessed by Moses, and Caleb on his way from Hebron, join the rest of the spies. The latter bring a dire report. 'True, there are giant grape clusters, and true the land flows with milk and honey - but the cities are fortified, and the land occupied by giants!' Not only that, they related, 'the land consumes its inhabitants; the giants were busy burying their dead!' With all of this, the spies conclude: 'We are not able to go up against the nation, for they are more powerful than we are.'

Yet Caleb and Joshua have a different report - didn't they see the dangers that so rattled the spies?

While empiricists from Francis Bacon to Katie Courik tell us that seeing is believing, the story of the spies tells us that the reverse is true. The spies, our sages tell us, from the moment they went out on their mission had their plan in mind - and so everything that they see reinforces their already foregone conclusion - 'better to have died in Egypt; we are not going to the Promised Land.'

Yet Caleb and Joshua see differently - their sight is informed by their connection to their past. Joshua's connection is intrinsic - his name has changed. Caleb, without such benefit, goes to Hebron - which becomes his school for seeing. The place which is the most rocky and most barren - to the naked eye - is the richest. So Caleb learns a kind of vision, not tied to externals, but rather rooted in faith and the history of the patriarchs. Both Caleb and Joshua see things not with the eyes of the empiricist - 'seeing is believing,' but rather their belief allows what them to see. G-d promised the Land to the people of Israel. So Caleb and Joshua bring their own report to the people of Israel: 'The land is very very good.'

It comes down to vision - and how we see the world reflects on how we see ourselves. The spies see giants burying their dead as part of the movie, 'Canaan, Resident Evil'; Joshua and Caleb look at the same event as the continuation of the movie that began in Egypt: 'Chasdie Hashem, G-d's Beneficent Acts.' Yes, G-d had wrought plague on the giants, but not to show a land that ate its inhabitants, but to distract the giants from noticing the intrusive presence of the spies.

So it's not only Caleb and Joshua whose self-conception affects their vision. 'We were like grasshoppers in our eyes,' the spies say, and so 'we appeared in the eyes of the inhabitants of the Land.' Caleb and Joshua saw themselves as descendants of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs - they felt they deserved the Land, not on the basis of their own merits, but on the basis of the traditions of their forefathers. 'Even if G-d tells us to build ladders to go up to the Heavens - we will succeed at whatever He says.' Such is the power of those who see themselves as fulfilling the will of G-d.

But the spies were more realistic, not only about the world, but about themselves. 'Come off it,' they thought to themselves - 'are we really that different from the seven nations who inhabit the Land? What gives us the right?' Their realism extended to themselves - 'we are a people like any other people. Can we claim to be morally superior? are we better than the nations?' And so the verse 'they were grasshoppers in their own eyes, and thus became grasshoppers in the eyes of the inhabitants' should be understood in terms of cause and effect: Because they were diminished in their own eyes, they were diminished in the eyes of the seven nations.

But more than that - how they saw themselves diminished G-d. When the spies say of the inhabitants of the Land - 'they are more powerful than we are!' (mimen'u in the original), they also express another thought, 'they are more powerful than Him' (mimen'o, spelled the same with just a change in the vowel). G-d's power - of course - is never be diminished, but because of their image of themselves, they diminished G-d's power in relation to them. 'If you want to conduct yourself according to the laws that govern the nations of the world, go ahead,' G-d challenges them. 'I will act accordingly.' And so the people of Israel become grasshoppers to the nations, and though Caleb had said with confidence, 'they are our bread,' it is the nations who feast on the people of Israel.

If only the people had listened to Caleb who had taken his degree in the Hebron school of seeing. Is it possible that without a similar education (for we can't hope for letters from the divine), we may also diminish G-d and His powers in relationship to us - because of our realistic, but all too diminished, sense of ourselves?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Grape Soda and Cheese Doodles: Israel, Boredom and the 'Desire for Desire'

Tolstoy describes the desire for desire as boredom.

The people of Israel - instigated by the mixed multitude who left Egypt with them - feel a 'desire for desire.' They want what they can't have - so they nostalgically long for the melons and onions and leeks which they had freely in Egypt.

But, as our sages say, the people of Israel had nothing free in Egypt. The Egyptians held back straw for their building; they certainly didn't dispense cucumbers and watermelons for nothing! Rather, such pleasures, as our sages say, were free - free of mitzvot. So the people of Israel thought: 'those were the days' - hence their nostalgic yearning for unadulterated pleasure, the pleasures without obligation, the pleasures of slavery. Tyrants, as John Milton wrote in one of his polemical works against King Charles I, gladly suffer license and luxury; it's free men they detest. So perhaps Pharoah willingly gave out fish and meat and other delicacies - to better keep the people of Israel in thrall. This is not unlike impoverished neighborhoods around the world - where there may be a shortage of money and work - but never a shortage of grape soda and cheese doodles.

This form of being in the world the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips likens to perversion - which he identifies as a certainty about what it takes to bring pleasure - such a person 'has no doubt about what will satisfy and fulfill him,' and he frantically searches for the pleasures he imagines. The desire for desire is thus rooted in the past and turns the present into its image, and, not surprisingly, projects a similar future. So that which promises the greatest excitement actually deadens us to the possibilities of the new. Masquerading as excitement, the 'desire for desire' provides the cover story for inaction and boredom - the pleasure of slavish repetition, rather than the genuine pleasures that make creative engagement possible. No accident that the 'desire for desire' leads to the craving of those fruits and vegetables - melons, onions and cucumbers - that are rooted to the ground. The manna that flowed forth from the heavens could be prepared in a multitude of ways, but the people preferred the rooted - and effortless - inertness of pursuing desires that led them back to their own physicality.

Mitzvot - which contains the word tzevet, to join - hold out the promise of something else, the possibility of joining with the divine. The excitement of desiring desire provides ersatz pleasures, but in its narcissism can never transform into love.

For love requires not only cultivating a feeling, but relationship - and back to Milton - service:

... freely we serve.
Because we freely love, as in our will
To love or not; in this we stand or fall...
Service and love come together. Though neither are possible when boredom leads to pursuing a nostalgic desire for a desire we may have once had - when we were still slaves.

Our Ancestors were not Fools!

Would you buy a used car from this man?

Two of my old teachers are in the news - Stanley Fish and Terry Eagleton.

Fish taught me Milton at Columbia - but he was and remains a pragmatist skeptic. Eagleton taught me literary theory at Oxford - a Marxist skeptic.

So surprise, when in Fish's review of Eagleton's new book, the two take aim at the intellectual pretensions of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens - the apologists for the new atheism (they even had an ad campaign on London buses; that's Dawkins above).

So the Marxist and the Skeptic both argue that the triumph of modern thinking - liberalism and technology - still leaves a place for religion. 'Saying that the emergence of the telescope and the microscope outmodes religion is like saying,' Fish paraphrases Eagleton, that 'thanks to the toaster oven we can forget about Chekhov, or Milton, or Proust...' (you can fill in the blank).

Both Fish and Eagleton challenge the image of the religious thinker in the thought of Dawkins and Hitchens (or your favorite local atheist rabble rouser) - of someone who has acquiesced to a simple fundamentalism and, as friends used to say to me, has 'taken the easy way out.' Sure, there are those within religious communities who present such an image of self-righteous complacency - in my circles it's known as frumkeit. But more accurate is the the religious personality portrayed by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. Though there were those - even in the forties - who saw religion as 'tranquil and neatly ordered, tender and delicate, an enchanted stream for embittered souls,' R. Soloveithchik portrays a religious personality obsessed, and sometimes even tormented, by questions.

Questions that as Eagleton writes, in a 'society of packaged fulfillment, administered desire and consumerist economics' are not likely to be thought - let alone raised. Theology may not always answer our questions, but it allows - with a lifetime of thought - for their refinement.

I have to confess when I first returned to Jewish observance, I was embarrassed to tell my old teachers. But now with the Skeptic and the Marxist out of the closet - it makes it a whole lot easier. Maybe things are changing.

Finally, Eagleton has his own confession - he wrote his book, he writes, in defense of his own forbearers - 'against the charge that the creed to which they dedicated their lives is worthless and void.' My ancestors, Eagleton now acknowledges, were not fools.

Perhaps this is something - all the more so one would think - for Jews to consider as well?

Monday, June 1, 2009

Fear and Loathing in Jerusalem: the Prequel

Just wanted to say thanks for all the supportive comments and advice on our adventures in education in Jerusalem with our son, Shmuel.

I'm also reposting here an article I wrote for the magazine of the Orthodox Union, Jewish Action a few years ago. I see that I've come along way myself - perhaps others in our community will follow!

Pulled Up Short by Shmuel

My son, Shmuel, was born four years ago on the tenth of Cheshvan. My wife woke me at 3 A.M.; we were at the hospital a bit after 3:30. Not her first delivery, the labor was quick: by 5:45, she gave birth. So efficient she was, I thought, that there would be time to make it to my regular 7 A.M. minyan in the Bayit Vegan neighborhood of Jerusalem. Our newborn would fit into my schedule—everything according to expectations; everything as planned. I accompanied the baby to the post-delivery room. The doctor, flanked by two nurses, labored over the baby with unexpected focus and intensity. Finally, the doctor emerged: our newborn, he suspected (really, he knew), had Down’s syndrome.

A close friend of ours, a nurse at Shaarei Tzedek (where more babies with Down’s syndrome are born than any place in the world) whispered to my wife, moments after we received the news, that she would be happy to take the baby and foster him—even before my wife would be released from the hospital. The doctors and hospital staff, who, in the past, had been unswerving in their aversion to early discharge, happily acquiesced to my wife’s request to go home after only one day, relieved that we would, in fact, be taking the baby home. Friends visited: two of them conducted a dispute, in my presence, about whether a father of a child with Down’s syndrome should be wished a congratulatory mazal tov (the answer is yes). A rabbinical authority in my neighborhood averred upon hearing the news that the event could only be looked at as a manifestation of unadulterated din, Divine judgment; someone else recounted the story of a father of a similar child who had proclaimed at the Brit Milah of his son that the birth of such a child was a manifestation of pure rachamim, Divine mercy. A neighbor advised that we really should foster the child: raising such a child—though, of course, “a blessing!”—would be too large a burden, not to mention a source of embarrassment to our family. Amidst all of this, the languages of advice, explanation and consolation—and I had hardly noticed—there was an infant, nursing in my wife’s steadfast arms.

The irony, unappreciated then, and for many months, even years after, was that I had devoted much of my personal and professional energies to understanding conceptions of diversity and difference, first in relation to the works of the Western literary tradition, and then, on a different path, in relation to Torah and the teachings of Chazal. Throughout my career as a professor of English literature, I have been compelled by literary and theoretical meditations on difference; when I entered the realm of the beit midrash, I discovered the ways in which Chazal affirm a notion of Divine truth—emet—with a multiplicity of different faces. When I was confronted, however with a “child of difference,” not the difference espoused enthusiastically around large oak tables by my teachers in graduate school at Columbia, or even that discussed between the four walls of the beit midrash, I was unprepared. All of my adventures in the pursuit of understanding difference, diversity and pluralism in the arcane and academic languages of epistemology and literary hermeneutics, and even in the realm of limud, had insufficiently prepared me for Shmuel.

When the world, as Deborah Kerdeman writes, “departs from our expectations and desires,” and thus “refuses to be appropriated by us or subjected to our categories, we are “pulled up short.” That is, suddenly, we encounter a reality that our categories fail to fully assimilate: it is an experience associated with “loss” or failure—the inability of our cognitive equipment to provide a map adequate to “what happens.” I had been “pulled up short” by the birth of my son Shmuel, or, more accurately, pulled up short by the initially shattering experience of having an atypical child, a child with Down’s syndrome.

To be sure, the label “atypical,” or the exceptional, has useful diagnostic functions. But the question, I wondered, was in what sense, if any, is there a conception of typicality in the Torah? That is, does the Torah proscribe a notion of typicality, and how does it accommodate conceptions of difference? If the Biblical notion of tzelem Elokim (man created in the image of God) affirms a similarity between man and the Divine, with all men created in His image, Chazal in Sanhedrin (37a) come to qualify that assertion of similarity with an emphasis on difference: Though it is comforting at times to hear Shmuel referred to as a “tzaddik,” and that he is incapable of transgression, such labels deprive children of the very possibility of entering into the community of mitzvah observance.“When a man mints coins with one ‘stamp,’ all [of the coins] are similar to one other, but when the King of Kings mints each man from the ‘stamp’ of Adam Harishon, each one of them is different; therefore it is incumbent upon each person to say, ‘For me the world was created.’” Created from the stamp of the First Man, and traceable to that original source in his similarity, each man also evidences an ineluctable difference. It is this difference which affords him with the experience of both opportunity and responsibility: “For me the world was created.” For it is the image of God which guarantees that all manifestations of difference are linked back first to Adam Harishon, and then to the Divine. As Dr. Rahamim Melamed-Cohen observes in his remarkable book about the exceptional child in the Jewish tradition, there are blessings recited upon seeing difference or exceptionality in the Divine creation, but only the blessing over human exceptionality includes the shem Hashem, the Divine name. Only in those human differences, though sometimes confounding our expectations and “pulling us up short,” does the Divine image dwell.

Notwithstanding the pervasive attitude of a contemporary Western culture that aggressively advertises its commitment to multiplicity, diversity and pluralism, such a culture does not really encourage the encounter with genuine difference. As a recent New York Times article observed, more and more prospective parents in the United States choose to terminate pregnancies rather than face the prospect of nurturing a difference that has a human face. The faces of those who are born also sometimes remain invisible—not because their faces lack the ability to make an impression, but rather because the cognitive lenses available fail to afford the refinement of vision that allows such children to be seen. We view the world through a set of categories and expectations; and what doesn’t fall within those categories does not register on our cognitive screens. Vision may be a biological mechanism, but what we, in fact, see is also a function of our perceptual habits and prejudices.

In the days after Shmuel’s birth, after the genetic tests confirmed what the doctors all knew, I found myself consistently trying to place Shmuel within categories: knowing that he surely wasn’t typical, I found myself relying upon the categories supplied by my well-meaning friends: he was “special”; he was “atypical”; he was a manifestation of pure din, of pure rachamim. It took me several years to realize that he may be some aspects of all of these things, but first and foremost, he was Shmuel.

Immediately after the birth, we were especially susceptible to what I now see as the not-so-well conceived advice of others: my wife and I had decided to conceal Shmuel’s “condition” from our children. Within about an hour of our return home from the hospital, my oldest daughter, Elisheva, then thirteen, inquired quietly and matter of factly, “Does he have Down’s syndrome?” When we answered in the affirmative (we were both relieved that the charade had ended so quickly), Elisheva disappeared mysteriously from the house, only to return fifteen minutes later to pick up Shmuel and smother him in kisses. Our second oldest daughter, Avital, then eight, wanted to know: “What is Down’s syndrome anyway?” After explaining what I then understood about the syndrome (which was very little), looking only half satisfied, Avital asked with quiet innocence, “Do I have Down’s syndrome?” As parents we may try to model behavior for our children, but the innocence of seeing without judgment of the latter incident, and the effort to see against habitual categories of the first, provided me with a model for beginning to see Shmuel.

It was at about this time that I came upon a famous story recounted in the Talmud (Ta’anit 20b): the tanna, Rabbi Elazar ben Shimon, upon returning from his teacher’s house, was “rejoicing greatly” and feeling “proud,” since he had “learned much Torah.” As the story continues, Rabbi Elazar “chances upon a man,” described as “exceedingly ugly.” When greeted by the “ugly man,” Rabbi Elazar responds: “Empty One! Are all the people of your city perhaps as ugly as you?” To this, the man replies: “I do not know, but go and tell the Craftsman who made me, ‘How ugly is that vessel that you made!’” Having realized his transgression, Rabbi Elazar dismounts from his donkey, prostrates himself, and says, “I have spoken out of turn to you; forgive me!” Not until implored by the people of a nearby city does the man agree to forgive Rabbi Elazar—provided, the former stipulates, that “he does not make a habit of doing this.” Rabbi Elazar had been guilty of a visual transgression linked to habit—seeing the outer shell of the man, instead of his inner essence (thus the “ugly man” invokes the Craftsman that made him, implicitly arguing for his own connection, despite appearances, to tzelem Elokim). According to some, the ugly man is none other than Elijah the Prophet, who had come to make sure that Rabbi Elazar would not become “habituated to such behavior.” There are different kinds of bad habits, some of the visual variety: from the framing gesture of the aggadic story, it seems that Rabbi Elazar’s attitude, his contentedness and “pride” in his learning, had contributed to that perceptual error.

So Rabbi Elazar runs to the nearest house of study and expounds: “A person should always be soft like a reed and not hard like a cedar.” He goes on to elaborate the legal consequences of the homily: “For this reason, the reed merited to have quills drawn from it to write Torah scrolls, tefillin and mezuzot.” A person should demonstrate the softness and flexibility of the reed; to be sure, the Torah provides the categories through which to understand the world, but those categories must themselves be applied with sensitivity, and not “arrogance.” When one is hard—or inflexible—like a cedar, the story implies, there is a possibility of perceptual transgression like that committed by Rabbi Elazar. Habitual ways of seeing—the wielding of inflexible categories—can lead to arrogance and insulate one from the genuine encounter with difference. The Torah, which can be written with a reed, contains the implicit injunction (this is the reason Rabbi Elazar runs to give a derash) that all of our categories, even those which come as the result of much study, must be applied with flexibility.

So I had realized with Shmuel: it was easy to go through life without seeing children who are different—through relegating them, with the simplifying glance of habit, to the categories of the atypical. When Shmuel was born, I didn’t see the child, but the diagnostic category, and Shmuel’s own inability (as it were) to fulfill my expectations.

Another, perhaps more insidious way of such perceptual avoidance, is through the very label “special.” Though it is comforting at times to hear Shmuel referred to as a “tzaddik,” and that he is incapable of transgression, such labels deprive children of the very possibility of entering into the community of mitzvah observance, and thus deny them the possibility of their particular chelek, portion, in Torah. This chelek may be circumscribed, though there may be the possibility that even children like our Shmuel will also be able to say: “The world was created for me.”

The phrase “children like Shmuel” may be a more expansive category than I had thought on the day of his birth. Since then, my family and I have been exposed to the exceptionality of difference, not just as a theoretical construct or as a literary notion, but as part of the texture of everyday life. But more than that, because our own Shmuel so clearly manifests his difference, we have been confided with many other stories of exceptionality from neighbors, friends and colleagues. It turns out that the children who wear the badge of typicality, who seem to fulfill everyone’s expectations, may have their own secret—not failings, but differences. The matmid who lives in the corner building may have dyslexia, the “Queen of the Class” may have a learning disability. That such revelations come hesitatingly may be a function of a general cultural denial of difference that has made inroads into our own communities. Yet if we are fearful of revealing our imperfections or are reluctant to acknowledge the differences of others, it is not out of fidelity to the demands of Torah.

Quite the contrary, there is a way of seeing that is part of our inheritance of our forefather Yaakov: Unlike his brother Esav who hurries off to Mount Seir to receive his full reward in his experience of the perfection of this world, Yaakov “leads on softly”—accommodating the pace and needs of his “nursing” cattle and “tender” children (Bereishit 33:13). Yaakov slows down to tend to the needs of others, acknowledging, unlike Esav, imperfection as part of the nature of this world. We are mistaken to believe that children with Down’s syndrome or other disabilities are the only ones who are “tender.” Viewing my children (not just Shmuel, but his brothers and sisters as well) through the unthinking application of fixed categories risks missing the distinctive manifestation of tzelem Elokim which each of them—not just the diagnostically “special”—represents. When Shmuel was born, I didn’t see the child, but the diagnostic category, and Shmuel’s own inability to fulfill my expectations.This is not to deny that there is a continuum of exceptionality, but Shmuel, like almost all children, confounds categories; indeed, the most typical of children, if we look closely, will show themselves to be atypical.

Calibrating our perceptual mechanisms so that we can see the “tender” among us is not, however, a one-time affair. Recently, after a shiur I gave, a distraught father of a newly born “special” child asked me: “How are you so at peace with your Shmuel?” In explaining my “transformation,” I may have mentioned the stories of Avital or Elisheva, or perhaps the image of Shmuel caressing his own younger brother in the hospital on the day of his birth, or perhaps the memory of Shmuel answering his first berachah with “Amen.” The very next Shabbat, however, walking through our neighborhood, my wife and I passed by a couple wheeling a large carriage, to which was attached a respirator—on which the father made painstaking adjustments. I turned to my wife and uttered, “How sad….” Her response was immediate, the rebuke barely camouflaged: “But don’t you see how much he loves his child?”

To the question, “But don’t you see?” very often, the answer is: “No.” Rabbi Elazar was chastened for a perceptual complacency born out of pride; in the face of the new father who had asked my advice, I had evidenced a similar self-contentment. To his question, I should have simply answered: There’s no magical transformation, no singular turning-point, no defining epiphany, but rather the ongoing challenge to be “soft like a reed”—to be flexible in vision.

Seeing the atypicality of Shmuel thus remains both a process and challenge—of acknowledging that difference is not just a theoretical ideal for the seminar room, nor just part of earnest discussions about epistemological pluralism or multiculturalism, or even a conception of limud confined to the walls of the beit midrash. But rather that difference has a face (like that of the man encountered by Rabbi Elazar), through which the image of the Divine “Craftsman,” if we would only learn how to look properly, can be seen.