Last week I witnessed a rite of passage I’m unlikely to forget. My twins and I attended a Shabbat service at a neighborhood congregation we’re exploring. Turns out that the community was acknowledging a special member of its own that evening – a 13-year-old boy named Ben who was being Bar Mitvahed.
The thing is that Ben is special, particularly special. He is mentally retarded, blind and wheelchair-bound. He cannot read or speak or hold a pencil in his twisted hands. Now…I’ve been to lots of Bar and Bat Mitzvahs in my 44 years, but I’ve never seen anything quite so extraordinary and full of grace as this one.
Ben was surrounded by his parents and two older sisters, both of whom had been Bat Mitzvahed in the traditional way – meaning they studied Hebrew, worked closely with the Rabbi to understand and read from the Torah, made speeches, and danced in celebration.
Perhaps more religious folks would question the legitimacy of Ben’s Bar Mitzvah given all that he could not do. And yet, this Rabbi spoke about Ben’s soul, pure and simple. In spite of all his challenges, Ben, he said, was just as worthy as any other Jewish child for he, too, has unique gifts. Typical Bar and Bat Mitzvah students work hard, but Ben, the Rabbi continued, has to work hard just to stay alive. And then Ben’s father read a blessing the family had written for him, thanking Ben for all that he had taught them.
There wasn’t a dry eye on the lawn (yes, the service was outdoors). In between my own tears, I watched my 9-year-old twins, wholly transfixed on Ben and his family. What a lesson in humanity.
I never met Ben or his family that night. But I’ve been thinking about them all week. You see, the start of school always triggers a bit of upset and anxiety for my kids: we’re working through sleepless nights and insecurities about friendships, not being able to run as fast as the other kids, not being as coordinated on the playing field, and other real and perceived dramas.
Ben’s story helps me to look past these struggles. Because it’s true: every child, every person has his or her gifts.
I’ll leave you with a message from Ben via Bob Marley. The musician played it the night of Ben’s Bar Mitzvah and together we sang:
Don’t worry about a thing, ‘cause every little thing gonna be all right
Rise up this morning’; smiled with the risin’ sun.
Three little birds pitch by my doorstep
Singin’ sweet songs of melodies pure and true; saying,
This is my message to you-oo-oo.
Thank you, Ben