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A Day That Changed My Outlook On Life
|Sara Esther Crispe
I thought it was a typical freelance project. I jotted down the name of the organization, their existing website and location, and called to make an appointment for the interview. I left myself exactly 45 minutes before my next meeting so that I wouldn’t have to stay too long. I didn’t want to waste time and wanted to make sure we would cover ground so I could get my angle, which was all that really mattered to me. I figured a good story line and a couple of strong quotes and I’d be finished. But then I walked through the front door and what I wanted no longer mattered. Time stopped, reality (or the reality that I knew) stopped, my calendar stopped. Little did I know that the next three-quarters of an hour would be an experience I don’t think I will ever forget.
It just happened this morning, Rosh Chodesh Kislev, the beginning of the new month. I have been so busy lately that for a few minutes I couldn’t figure out why I heard Channukah music playing as I entered the building. Then, as the songs continued, I glanced at my calendar and discovered that in just a few weeks it will be Channukah, such a joyous celebration of victory for the Jewish people, and I temporarily forgot.
The truth is that upon entering the doors, I suddenly realized that I temporarily forget a lot of important things. And when you are always temporarily forgetting it ends up meaning that you just never really remember. I become so busy that I don’t focus on what is really important, what really counts. But in this place it was simply impossible. It was back to basics. Actually it was back to much less than basics. It was back to virtually nothing.
You see, for this interview I was sent to ALEH, one of the rehabilitative centers in Israel for severely disabled and handicapped children. Yet these are not children that will one day be mainstreamed or integrated into society. These are children that will spend the rest of their lives in this place, for this has now become their home. This center is where they will live, and unfortunately, where most will die. For them, this is it.
ALEH’s center is stunning. It is beautifully decorated with colorful pictures and displays everywhere. It has top quality staff and therapeutic activities. But then you look at the children, and they are simply heartbreaking. I couldn’t really do my interview, because I was afraid to talk. I knew if I opened my mouth I would start to cry. But more than what I felt for them, I was just utterly scared. All I could think was that this could happen to me. This could be my child. I was not immune. These were such severely deformed children, and yet in most cases, there was no reason to expect it. Most came from families with other healthy siblings, healthy parents, and they too were born from healthy pregnancies. But then something went wrong. Terribly wrong. And regardless of what the diagnosis ultimately was, these children will always be utterly dependent on others to live. They cannot eat by themselves (40% in this particular place are fed intravenously) they cannot go to the bathroom by themselves, most can’t even sit alone and virtually none can stand.
It sounds so trite and insincere to say that when in such a situation you really appreciate what you have, but there is just no greater truth. You do. But I think it is more than being grateful for the fact that you are healthy; there is something about being in such a situation that makes you aware of how warped our view of the world can be. What struck me most was that I felt so sorry for these children. But when I really thought about it, I couldn’t understand why. They didn’t appear to feel sorry for themselves. They didn’t appear miserable. They didn’t appear depressed. In fact, most seemed quite happy.
And what was even more amazing was how easy it was to make them happy. As the Channukah music was played, I watched as their eyes literally lit up and they began to shake from side to side or move. Some began to groan in a loud but clearly pleasurable way. Others clapped their hands together with huge smiles across their faces. And yet, as I watched their joy, all I wanted was to cry. Sure, a part of me wanted to cry because I felt so bad that they would never walk or run around or play like other children.
But if I am honest, really honest with myself, I think a part of me was crying over the fact that the sound of music was never enough to make me so happy. A warm pat or loving smile was never enough to capture my full attention and bring me such joy. Simple pleasures such as looking at a beautiful picture or rubbing something soft is never enough to comfort me. And for these children it is. I felt sorry for them, but perhaps it is them who should feel sorry for me.
I live a wonderful, blessed life, Thank G-d. I have four beautiful and healthy children. I have a loving husband and great friends and work that I thoroughly enjoy. And yet day after day I find something to complain about. I am too tired. The baby didn’t sleep at night. The house is a mess. I was stuck in line at the bank for over an hour. My daughter won’t stop whining.. And these things are enough to make me feel that my life is overwhelming. I can walk, talk, see, hear, think and do, and I still feel that my life is overwhelming. Yet then I watch these children. They cannot do anything by themselves and therefore virtually cannot do anything. But they seem happy. Is it true that ignorance is bliss? Are they ignorant, or do they merely focus on what counts. They are happy because they are being taken care of. They are fed, bathed, changed, played with, spoken to and loved. And those are some pretty amazing things. But unfortunately few of us appreciate it.
At a certain point I glanced at my watch. I was late. I had spent too much time in this place and had almost missed my next appointment. I needed to run and interview and write and do it all by 1:30 when my kids would finish school and needed to be picked up. Suddenly I was stressed again and had to get back to the real world.
But for the first time I wasn’t sure where it was.
Was it outside those doors, or exactly where I was standing? There wasn’t a child in that room that seemed to know what it meant to be stressed, to feel pressured, to have a bad day. To them, all that apparently mattered was that the music was playing and that they were enjoying it. And in truth, I think that is really all that matters.
I walked out the front door a changed person, at least temporarily. I sincerely thanked Hashem for my health and for the health of my family. I decided to walk slowly to my next meeting, as I tried to internalize the power of my experience. I knew I was late. I knew it wasn’t terribly professional. But in the scheme of things it just seemed pretty petty. Yes, I had probably annoyed people, but as much as they may have been stressed, it wasn’t the end of the world. Not moving, not speaking, not eating and not growing, that, as far as I had always thought, really was the end of the world. And if for all these children it wasn’t, then there was nothing I could possibly experience that could be.
As I left I was reminded of a beautiful story. It is a story of how of how a tzaddik, a holy man, was sitting with his disciples when he passed a child with Down syndrome. As the child passed, the tzaddik stood up and greeted him with “Baruch Habah.” His students couldn’t understand why, as this was a greeting reserved only for other tzaddikim. One student finally had the courage to ask the rebbe why he would address a child, let alone a handicapped child, with such an honored greeting. The rebbe then explained that we are all brought into this world because we have a mission to complete. Many of us have to repeatedly come into this world many times until we fulfill our duties through our Torah study and mitzvos. However, it is the souls of tzaddikim, of the purely righteous, that come into this world with no benefit to themselves, but only for the sake of others. They have already completed their mission in this world. A handicapped child is such a case. Because of his disability, he is unable to study Torah and perform mitzvos and that is because he has already completely rectified himself. Therefore, his only reason to be here is to help others achieve their purpose.
“So this is why I stood when we passed the boy,” the rebbe explained. “He was a complete tzaddik who is only in this world to help those around him.”
Today I merited to not only meet one tzaddik, but to meet 65. Who could have known that 45 minutes could be so life changing?
Sara Esther Crispe is a writer and inspirational speaker. She and her husband, Rabbi Asher Crispe, teach throughout the world and are currently scholars-in-residence for Chabad of Southwest Florida, where they live with their four children.
This article was originally published on www.chabad.org. It may not be reprinted without permission from the author.
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