America has a fascination with superheroes. Ironman, Spiderman, Superman … the list goes on and on. Of course, Hollywood keeps on churning out films about superheroes to feed America’s appetite.
Superheroes are characters to be admired and emulated. They are brave, bold, and true – and yet it is interesting and important to note that in many of the stories of their early years, the issue of special needs arises, often placing a special burden on their adoptive parents. For example, Superman’s adoptive Earth parents must cope with his special powers, as the ancient Greek hero Hercules’ mortal parents must cope with his.
The haftarah for this Shabbat tells a similar tale. Taken from the book of Judges, it describes the circumstances of the birth of Samson. The first Jewish superhero, Samson has great strength, but also special needs and requirements. He must not drink intoxicants, not cut his hair, nor come into contact with the dead. Samson’s mother is to follow similar restrictions during her pregnancy. His good and caring parents, like the parents of other superheroes, must realize that their child has a special purpose and that they must give their child over to that special purpose.
You could say that all of us are like parents of superheroes. Each of our children has special needs and issues that make them unique and different. Our task is to help them discover their unique place in the world.
But there are those in our community who are more like the parents of superheroes than the rest of us, who carry greater burdens and challenges because their children are different. These are parents of children with particular special needs, developmental or physical disabilities.
Unlike the parents of fictional superheroes, these parents will not see their children with special needs grow up to fight evil and save the world from disaster. In many cases, these parents worry whether their children will ever be able take care of themselves, let alone take care of others. They worry that when they themselves die, their children with special needs will be lost.
As the head of Jewish Family Services in Tampa, Fla., I had the honor of working with parents of adult children with special needs. I heard their heart-wrenching stories – their troubles and fears and laments. I, therefore, offer this message with humility and with trepidation, not really having walked in their shoes.
It seems to me that the greatest task, especially for these superparents but certainly for all parents, is to believe in a God Who, as the Mishna in Sanhedrin states, made each human being the same and each human being uniquely different. Using the image of making coins, the Mishna states, “When a human being stamps many coins from one mold, the coins all resemble one another. But the Holy One fashioned each of us in the stamp of the first human being, and yet we are all different. Therefore, every single person is obliged to say, for my sake the world was created.”
To realize that within every person, from the superabled to the disabled, there is God’s image, equal and full, and there is also a uniqueness in them that is created just for this world – that is the task of parents of children with special needs and, for that matter, the task of all parents.
Rabbi Justin David, author of the Life Lights pamphlet “Raising a Child with Special Needs” and a parent of a child with Asperger’s Syndrome, comments on our Mishna: “I have always loved this teaching and it means something very different to me now that my heart opens and breaks for my son. It means that difference among people, all differences, including our children with special needs, are occasions for awe and wonder. It compels me to understand that my son’s Asperger’s Syndrome is integral to who he is, and therefore essential to the contribution he makes in the world.”
We recognize on this Shabbat the wonder of being a parent, expressed so beautifully in our haftarah with the story of the grateful Manoah and his once-barren wife. We recognize today the pain and heartache today of being parent of a child with very special and demanding needs. We recognize today the challenge and holy task of being a parent of any child, opening our eyes and hearts to his or her own special abilities, gifts, and place in this world. And finally, we recognize today the gift of Judaism that has bequeathed to us a God Who blesses each one of us with the divine image and with our own special place and unique contribution to this world.
In Parshat Naso, we find Birkat Kohanim, the priestly benediction. It begins, “Yivarechecha HaShem, May God bless you…” One commentator, Ha-amek Davar, interprets this to mean, “May God bless you according to your needs – the student with intelligence, the merchant with business acumen. On this Shabbat Naso, when we think of the challenges of children with special needs and their parents, we pray that we as a community will have the compassion and the decency to better welcome them and support them. We pray that God will bless all of us and our families according to our needs, special and not so special, as well.