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Special Children
by Simon Jacobson

With all the challenges that we face on a daily basis, one can’t help but wonder once in a while: “Is it worth it?” Are our commitments and obligations – and all the hard work we put into whatever activity we are invested in – worth all the effort?

Then there are magical moments that make it all clear. Moments of truth – that cut through the superficiality of things – and expose a real experience. How you can make a real difference in the world.

I had such a moment this past week. (In the work I do I have been blessed to have many such moments in my life; may you be blessed with them as well).

Following last week’s article Can We Change Our Personalities? I received many meaningful replies. One that stood out was a heart wrenching e-mail from a mother of a bi-polar child.

With her permission I include it below, followed by my reply (with additions). May you benefit from it as much as I did.

If you have any experiences or thoughts that you would like to share about the issue of “special children” or “special adults” (not handicapped or impaired, read on) – please send them to me. This issue is a critical one, and many people could use strong support. It’s very hard to describe the deep loneliness and isolation, not to mention the guilt and feelings of failure, which families experience when dealing with “special children.” We are here to help each other. Your words may therefore be of great benefit to others (your confidentiality is always guaranteed).

From: Judith Lederman


Subject: Re: Can We Change Our Personalities? By Simon Jacobson

>>If, for example, someone is born with an angry gene, or acquired angry fits at young age – either due to overexposure to an angry parent, or to deeply embedded resentment built up over the years – can we actually expect that this person will cease reacting with bouts of fury? Or if another is stingy by nature (first or second nature) can she ever become generous?<< (quote from last week’s article, Can We Change Our Personalities?)

Dear Rabbi Jacobson,

I enjoy your emails but have a problem with this premise. My son was born with the angry gene. It's called Bipolar Disorder--and it's an illness that causes him to have rages. His diagnosis came at age 8 and his first suicide attempt was at age 5. My father-in-law had the gene as well--and was given away by his mother at age 3 to be raised by a Rav in Poland. She just couldn't handle him. My husband has a touch of it too. And my family has been blown apart by the illness.

I see where you are going with the nature/nurture argument. But moods – especially the kind you are describing here – can be caused by brain chemicals. We know so little about how the brain functions – and why these chemicals are triggered either in excess or in inadequate doses – but we do know that frequently rages, moods, depression, are indeed "uncontrollable" (but medication and psychotherapy do help the person maintain control).

I know that the Torah commands us to change our moods at certain times of the year (and even gives us "tips" and guidelines to help us maintain moods -- e.g., no music during sfira [the 49 day period of counting the Omer] or mourning periods or drinking Ad Lo Yodah [beyond comprehension] on Purim) but there ARE moods that need more than Torah guidelines, and B"H [thank G-d], He has opened our eyes to the miracle of brain chemistry and has given us insights and medications to help address mental illness.

Even a Divine Bipolar Personality may need a little help (beyond tfillah [prayer])...The premise that moods are completely controllable is one that can actually HURT the community at large and keep them from getting the support they need to deal with mental illness in their loved ones.

Judith Lederman - Author of The Ups & Downs of Raising a Bipolar Child: A Survival Guide for Parents (

Good Shabbos!

----- Original Message -----


To: Judith Lederman

Subject: Re: Can We Change Our Personalities? By Simon Jacobson

Dear Judith,

Thank you for your insightful e-mail. Your points are well taken and well stated.

On a personal note, my heart goes out to you and I am in awe of your strength to face your challenges with such dignity. I commend you for channeling your experiences into the book you authored that can and must be of great help to many others facing the challenge of a bi-polar child.

I agree with all you write and am glad that you qualified my comments. For the benefit of others, do we have your permission to post your thoughts (with or without your name as you see fit)?

I should have spelled it out, but my article was not addressing personality traits that are not in our control -- like the color of our eyes, or chemical imbalances.

Obviously, each of us has inherent genes, traits or other forces that are beyond our control. Yet, the premise of my article is applicable to all people and all situations: If we are mere human mortals then fundamental change is as impossible as a tiger changing its stripes; however, being Divine entities allows us unscripted possibilities.

These possibilities include changing or transcending some of our “natural” and “inherent” faculties. But they also include the ability to create something new and unexpected, and actually “change” even areas that don’t seem possible to directly change at least in the technical sense.

Even a child or adult with bi-polar is a Divine being with unique strengths and challenges. We may never understand G-d's mysterious ways, but we do know that this child is special and has an indispensable role to play in the Divine choreography. The child -- and the surrounding adults -- may not have control over his/her moods and ups and downs, but we do have control over our attitude how to react and treat the child. Too often adults, in their own discomfort, insecurity or ignorance, are embarrassed or judgmental of a special child and do mistakenly expect mood control, which hurts the child and the community (as you correctly state). Basically, many people project their own distortions on mentally (or otherwise) challenged children.

The Torah approach is that we always have control and choice to treat the child with the dignity s/he deserves and allow the child to shine with true Divine beauty. A child who is challenged in a particular area is blessed with other powerful strengths – strengths that were not given to those without these challenges. But we have to learn to look for and appreciate these strengths, and not impose our own views on what makes someone special.

And when we change our attitude and “think different,” we actually do change “natural” reality: We change our own personality -- and even the child's personality -- for the better.

Wondrous things can be elicited from a child treated with true dignity. I just heard about a mother who ignored all the pessimistic advice from doctors and professionals, and engaged her autistic child with persistence, reaching and reaching and never giving up, even when she was mocked by all the so-called experts. Her child today, an adult, is still faced with unique challenges, but what she had done for him is considered miraculous in doctors’ eyes. Her sensitivity and love brought out dimensions in the child that no one thought possible.

The Talmud calls a blind person “sagi nohor,” [one who has] “abundant light” (sic)! Ostensibly this is out of respect and sensitivity: Instead of using a negative title (“blind”) that implies the inability to see any light, we say someone who has “abundant light.”

But isn’t this expression a bit insulting? It’s like calling a lame person a “sprinter.” Explain our mystical sages in Chassidic thought that “sagi nohor” is actually an accurate description of blindness. Proper eyesight is dependent on the correct balance of light and shade. Parts of the eye serve as a filter that allows in an image with just the right amount of light without blinding us. When too much light enters we are blinded. Blindness is therefore a form of “sagi nohor,” allowing too much light to enter the eye with no veils to shroud and shade the blinding light.

Taking this one step further: The blind have more power and light than the seeing-eyed. I have met quite a few “vision impaired” people who see more than most of us with open eyes.

I will never forget the moving words of the Rebbe almost thirty years ago when he spoke to a group of wounded Israeli war veterans, many of them sitting in wheelchairs. In sum he said that he objects to the term “disability.” “If a person has been deprived of a limb or a faculty, this itself indicates that G-d has given him special powers to overcome the limitations this entails, and to surpass the achievements of ordinary people.”

“You are not ‘disabled’ or ‘handicapped,’” the Rebbe told them that warm August Thursday in 1976, “but special and unique, as you possess potentials that the rest of us do not.”

“I therefore suggest,” he continued, adding with a smile – “of course it is none of my business, but Jews are famous for voicing opinions on matters that do not concern them – that you should no longer be called nechei Yisrael (‘the disabled of Israel,’ as designated by the IDF) but metzuyanei Yisrael (‘the special of Israel’).”

“Special children” is not just a euphemism. It expresses the true power of these children (or adults): They are not disabled people; they are special – blessed with extraordinary strengths that others simply do not have. We have the power to tap their enormous potential only when we begin to look at them and at life in general with “new” eyes. No informed by the trappings and myopia of human subjective experiences, mortal, static and dying, but by the perspective of the dynamic Divine, living, renewing and always blossoming.

So we always have a choice: Do we look at life only with our sensory tools or with deeper faculties. If we measure experience merely on a sensory level, then beauty, quality and other virtues are defined by the limits of human senses – beauty is only what looks, sounds, tastes, smells or feels beautiful. And what about all of the dimensions that can never be seen or heard, smelled, tasted or touched with our tangible faculties?

We therefore have another way of experiencing life: With Divine tools. Then we can see and hear fresh and new dimensions, undefined by conventional parameters.

Music, poetry, love –- and above all, the search for the Divine – are but a few of the transcendental experiences that express the infinite wellsprings of the spiritual.

I thank you again for sharing your moving words.

Blessings and best wishes,

Simon Jacobson

>>For the benefit of others, do we have your permission to post your comments (with or without your name as you see fit)?<<

Absolutely print my post and clarify that you meant to address personality traits. You may use my name…

You are right about his strengths. He is a brilliant poet. If you visit my website, you will see one of his poems (written at age 11).

Thanks for your response.




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