What are we?

My son Shuby and I go to shul for Shacharis weekday mornings, ever since Shuby started putting on tefillin. Shuby has Downs, so I wind the tefillin for him, help him with the berakhos, etc… We had a conversation that morning, which started with him declaring me “the boss of the tefillin.” When I explained that tefillin weren’t something I came up with, that it was Hashem’s idea, he asked me why Hashem told us to put on tefillin. I started thinking of a formulation he could understand, and it was difficult.

At Shuby’s bar mitzvah, I retold the story made famous by R’ Paysach Krohn, of boys who let a child with special needs, Shaya, join them in a baseball game. You can even find copies of the story on non-Jewish sites. Artscroll made that chapter of R’ Krohn’s book available on their web site, here. The story is set as something retold by Shaya’s father at a dinner for Shaya’s school, Chush. Some snippets:

… After extolling the school and its dedicated staff, he cried out, “Where is the perfection in my son Shaya? Everything that Hashem does is done with perfection. But my child cannot understand things as other children do. My child cannot remember facts and figures as other children do. Where is Hashem’s perfection?” The audience was shocked by the question, pained by the father’s anguish and stilled by his piercing query.
“I believe,” the father answered, “that when Hashem brings a child like this into the world, the perfection that He seeks is in the way people react to this child.”
… One Sunday afternoon, Shaya and his father came to Darchei Torah as his classmates were playing baseball. The game was in progress and as Shaya and his father made their way towards the ballfield, Shaya said, “Do you think you could get me into the game?”
…The boy looked around for guidance from his teammates. Getting none, he took matters into his own hands and said, “We are losing by six runs and the game is already in the eighth inning. I guess he can be on our team and we’ll try to put him up to bat in the ninth inning.”

Shaya ran towards second base as the runners ahead of him deliriously circled the bases towards home. As Shaya reached second base, the opposing shortstop ran towards him, turned him towards the direction of third base and shouted “Shaya, run to third!”
As Shaya rounded third, the boys from both teams ran behind him screaming, “Shaya, run home! Shaya, run home!”
Shaya ran home, stepped on home plate and all 18 boys lifted him on their shoulders and made him the hero, as he had just hit the “grand slam” and won the game for his team.
“That day,” said the father who now had tears rolling down his face, “those 18 boys reached their level of perfection. They showed that it is not only those who are talented that should be recognized, but also those who have less talent. They too are human beings, they too have feelings and emotions, they too are people, they too want to feel important.”

While clearly people in and out of our community find the story inspiring, and this idea that “they too are people, they too want to feel important” is worth repeating, my first exposure to it left me depressed, feeling sorry for this father and his son.

I lack the intellectual capacity of the Vilna Gaon, I lack the memory of R’ Sacks (a rabbi in town with edietic memory), the capacity for compassion of the person who chooses a social worker’s salary in order to help others, etc…

We are all limited.

Early in Shacharis, assuming you come early enough to say it, is the prayer about accepting a willingness to commit one’s life to Hashem’s service, “Le’olam yehei adam yarei Shamayim — Always a person should be a fearer of [the One in] heaven”, or alternatively, “Always be (1) a mentch, (2) a fearer of [the One in] heaven…” But I want to reflect on a later section…

מָה אֲנַחְנוּ מֶה חַיֵּינוּ מֶה חַסְדֵּנוּ מַה צִּדְקֵנוּ מַה יְשְׁעֵנוּ מַה כּחֵנוּ מַה גְּבוּרָתֵנוּ. מַה נּאמַר לְפָנֶיךָ ה’ אֱ-להֵינוּ וֵא-להֵי אֲבותֵינוּ הֲלא כָל הַגִּבּורִים כְּאַיִן לְפָנֶיךָ וְאַנְשֵׁי הַשֵּׁם כְּלא הָיוּ וַחֲכָמִים כִּבְלִי מַדָּע וּנְבונִים כִּבְלִי הַשכֵּל כִּי רב מַעֲשיהֶם תּהוּ וִימֵי חַיֵּיהֶם הֶבֶל לְפָנֶיךָ. וּמותַר הָאָדָם מִן הַבְּהֵמָה אָיִן כִּי הַכּל הָבֶל: אֲבָל אֲנַחְנוּ עַמְּךָ בְּנֵי בְרִיתֶךָ

… What are we? What are our lives? What is our charity? What is our righteousness? What is our strength / potential? What is our heroism? What can we say before You, Hashem our G-d and the G-d of our fathers? Are not all the heroes like nothing before You, and famous people like they never were, and the wise as though without knowledge, and the smart without inspiration? For their many actions are naught, the days of their lives vanity before You, and the advantage of people over people is nothing, for all is vanity. However, we are Your nation, the people of Your covenant…

Compared to the Almighty, we are all infinitesimal.

Our job is to climb the ladder, not be on a given rung. And that’s just as true of Shaya as it is of the most brilliant among us. I feel sorry for Shaya’s father, who had an easier time seeing the perfection in the other boys in the game than seeing the value inherent in his son. He introduced the story, by saying “that when Hashem brings a child like this into the world, the perfection that He seeks is in the way people react to this child.” But this is very wrong: No person’s worth is contingent on someone else’s!

Shaya or Shuby aren’t playing life by different rules than the rest of us. My difficulties explaining the purpose of tefillin to Shuby are no different in kind than my limitations understanding their true purpose. That I may reach the same limited comprehension as most others who ask the question is only a statement of quantity — qualitatively it’s the same.

The most transcendental quality of man is our very ability to transcend. Our lives may not compare to much in the face of G-d, if it were not that He entered with us (and Noachides as well) into a covenant, the means to continually go beyond today’s limitations.

A person is not a better sculptor because of the quality of his materials. It is all about how we progress, not where we progress from.

After all, Rachmana liba bai — Hashem wants our heart. And who can say “vetaheir libeinu” or veyachad levaveinu“, that we should have pure and united hearts to serve the Ribbono shel olam, better than the boy who runs up to greet me when I get home from work, bouncing with joy he just can’t contain? Or who fidgets with excitement when mom brings home something for him — even if it’s just a new pair of socks? Who better captured the wholeheartedness we find in Rivqa, when she gets so lost in meeting Yitzchaq he falls off her camel? Or of Yitzchaq, as he stood there praying?

Shuby double-checks with me every night before going to bed, by making three diagonal strokes with his finger across his arm, while saying “Tomorrow we…” I may comprehend a bigger negligible sliver of why Hashem commanded us to wear them. He excitedly anticipates going to shul and putting on tefillin.

That is a perfection I can only aspire to.