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Do Autistic Children Have Special Souls?

Do Autistic Children Have Special Souls?

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Question:

This may sound like a silly question. I am the mother of two autistic children. I love them both dearly, but as any parent of children with special needs will tell you, raising them is challenging and can often be full of disappointment, hurt and frustration. I once heard somewhere that the Kaballah considers children who are autistic to be on a higher spiritual level, almost like angels. I found this idea to be extremely comforting and it gave me much strength to continue. I am trying to find out a little bit more about this concept -- is there any mention and/or allusion to autism anywhere in the Torah and/or other holy texts?

Response:

Every time I encounter a parent or guardian taking care of someone with special needs, I am in awe of their dedication and love. Reading your email with the preface "This may sound like a silly question…" is also inspiring. If your question is silly, then what am I to say of all my problems I imagine to be so important?

You asked for a source in the Kabbalah stating that the souls of these children are somehow special. In fact, there is just such a statement in the Zohar. But, as with most of the Zohar, it is not something immediately fathomable, so I hope you are up to a preamble and some explanation.

In the Torah reading of Emor (which happens to be the week in which you are asking this question) we find the laws of kohanim who have certain disabilities and are therefore disqualified from serving in the Holy Temple. The verse states "Any man among Aaron the Kohen's offspring who has a defect shall not draw near to offer up G‑d's fire offerings" (Leviticus 21:21).

How can it be that one who has done nothing wrong is barred from serving in the Holy Temple just because of a "blemish"? The G‑d who taught us to look beyond appearances and treat all with equal love, the same G‑d who created this very kohen with his disability, tells us "Nope, due to his blemish, he cannot serve Me in the Holy Temple"?!

So here is what is written in the holy Zohar:1

Rabbi Shimon opened the discussion with the verse: "Only he shall not go in to the Veil, nor come near the to altar, because he has a blemish; that he profane not My holy places: for I, G‑d, do sanctify them" (Vayikra 21:23). "He shall not go in to the Veil." Come and behold: at the time the river is flowing and comes out, and issues the souls, the feminine aspect above conceives. And they all abide in a room …

When the moon is rendered defective by the same aspect of the evil serpent, like all the souls that are issued, although they were all pure and sacred, are flawed. Since they emerged at a defective time, whichever place these souls reach [i.e. bodies] are crushed, and suffer pains and afflictions. The Holy One, blessed be He, cares for those who are broken, although their souls are sad instead of joyous.

The secret is that they remain as they were above. While the body is flawed, the soul inside remains the same as above. The one state resembles the other. Therefore, they are to be renewed like the moon, as it is written (Isaiah 66:23): "And it shall come to pass, that every new moon, and every Shabbat, all flesh shall come to bow down to the ground before Me, says G‑d." "All flesh" assuredly, for they are in need of renewal along with the moon.

…These righteous are the constant companions of the moon and have the identical defects.... And "G‑d is near to them who are of a broken heart"2—that is, to those who suffer from the same defect as the moon, those who are always near her. "And He saves such as are of a contrite spirit,"3 by giving them a portion of the life …because they who suffered with her shall also be renewed with her.

...Those defects from which the righteous suffer are called "sufferings of love," because they are caused by love and not by the man himself…Happy is their portion in this world and in the world to come...

As you can see, the words are quite esoteric. The thrust of them, however, is quite simple: There are souls born into the world that are whole on the inside, yet blemished on the outside. The reason is not for any punishment, but on the contrary, out of love. To understand further, you will need a little more explanation:

You need to know that the moon is a reference to G‑d's immanent presence in the world, otherwise known as the Shechinah. You also need to know that the Shechina, like the moon, wanes and waxes, as G‑d's presence sometimes shines brightly in the world, and at other times is shadowed and darkened. Some souls are conceived (not on earth, but above) at the waxing of the cycle. Those souls enter the world with a strong body and glide through life happily. Other souls are conceived with the darkening of the Shechina. Rabbi Shimon tells us that these souls share in the suffering of the Shechina—and that is why she is their constant companion. Eventually, this cycle of the Shechina will resolve in an everlasting fullness as G‑d's presence will shine in ultimate intensity in this world, and these souls "shall also be renewed with her."

So far, some answers. But many puzzles remain: Why must the Shechinah suffer? And what is the point behind these souls suffering along with her?

Concerning the suffering of the Shechina, Rabbi Yitzchaak Luria, the Ari, provided a deep and enlightening teaching. He explained that everything of our world is vitalized and sustained in existence by a divine spark. The higher the spark, he said, the lower it falls. The most intense divine light, therefore, is to be found in the darkest corners of our world. The Shechinah is both the light of G‑d's presence and the mother of all souls. The function of the human soul is to rescue these fallen sparks from their darkness so they may be reconnected to the Infinite Light. The Shechinah suffers as she descends into the darkness to perform that rescue. This, the Ari says, is "the secret of the exile of the Shechinah," as the Talmud says, "When the Jewish People go into exile, the Shechina goes with them."4

The Tzemach Tzedek5 uses this teaching of the Ari to explain the above words of the Zohar. Generally, he writes, there are two ways to rescue the sparks from the forces of darkness. He equates the spiritual task of the unblemished souls to an army which engages another in battle. Eventually, the victors subdue their enemy but do not eradicate them completely.

Then, the Tzemach Tzedek continues, there are those born with a blemish—albeit external, since their soul remains whole. Their task is to totally eradicate evil so that it ceases to exist. Yet to do so, they must come into direct contact with that darkness. They are like those special forces sent out in camouflage in order to entice the enemy into an ambush. Obviously these soldiers do not have the outside trappings of a burly navy seal, after all, would any half intelligent fighter follow someone who appears as a threat to them into an ambush? But on the inside, internally, they are the elite troops, charged with a special mission.

Another way of saying this: In order to battle face to face with the darkness, the soul needs to have some of that darkness itself. Yet only externally—in order that this darkness itself can be redeemed.

How does this apply to the special needs child? Certainly all of us have seen clearly how these children—who were until recently neatly quarantined away from society in secluded institutions—have given us so much now that we allow them to participate in society. A school that helps mainstream such a child is doing a great service to all its students, teaching them compassion and understanding of others. A community that helps out finds itself bonded together in their act of caring. You may have heard of the Friendship Circles that have sprung up to assist in this mainstreaming. The directors tell me that the ones who benefit the most are the teens that volunteer—and end up learning so much from these special souls. As a parent, yes it is hard, but in the long run you certainly have the most to gain.

You ask if your children can be compared to angels, but in fact they hold a position much higher. The rest of us serve as the foot soldiers in G‑d's army, which itself is position greater than angels. But your children are of the elite troops, completing a special task in this world. Their challenges are certainly no fault of their own, and neither of yours. On the contrary, you have been given the great merit of bringing these two elite souls into the world, nurturing them and caring for them as they complete their lofty mission. It is by no means an easy job, but G‑d only entrusts these souls into the hands He deems most appropriate.

Here is a short thought along the same lines: Gifted and Challenged.

Talking about Kohanim, and being a Kohen myself, I want to bless you with much nachas from your children, and with the strength to meet the challenge and privilege that G-d has presented you with.

Here is the link to the Friendship Circle official site.

FOOTNOTES
1. Vayeshev 181
2. Psalms 34:19
3. ibid.
4. Megillah 29a
5. Derech Mitzvotecha
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
Detail from a painting by Australian artist Dovid Brook. To view or purchase David's art please visit davidbrookpaintings.com
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Discussion (35)
December 4, 2013
I am 51 years old and I have a very rare form of high functioning autism. Only my emotional patterns are unaffected. This means with sufficient mental effort I can blend in with the normal population, with two exceptions: office politics and intimate relationships. I had done some introductory dating with Jewish women during my younger decades on the East Coast, who after meeting with me once or twice would immediately break it off. I've asked a mother or two why, and it was because 'rumor' had it I had autism, and they didn't want their daughter marrying someone with a disability. By the time I was 39 years old I realized time was running short... I decided to date and marry outside because I felt I was not being treated like a full human being by the people I was born to. I am happy... kind of... I have a wife who I love and a daughter who adores me, but unfortunately all three of us are now lost to you. The Jewish people need to consider autistic adults as fit to marry.
Anonymous
Pinehurst, ID
December 2, 2013
Well said Michael
My child is not a blemish. He is a gift from God.
Monica
November 27, 2013
This was sort of uplifting, but the fact that we say that the child is a blemish is discomforting. Someone could rationalize this "blemish" as a reason to murder them. I believe the best answer is that His thoughts are beyond ours, but that we still must treat everyone with respect and dignity. Only He knows Himself why he makes these children like this. Just because they are not the same does not make them a blemish. Maybe it is us that are different from them. Jesse Owens was once the fastest person on earth, but obviously everyone else who was not as fast was no where near his speed. Does this make everyone else a blemish, because they were not the same. Only G-d knows why they were not as fast as Owens was. To say that we understand this is to try to say that we understand G-d, but we do not. His ways are beyond ours. Our job is not to question, but rather to only follow the Law. Why do we neither murder, steal, nor commit adultery? It is simply because G-d said not to.
Michael
Greensboro
October 13, 2013
Autistic Children DO Have Special Souls!
I, myself, have Asperger's Syndrome, which is High-Functioning Autism, and my own soul can be hard for people to understand. Most people had NO idea how to deal with me, because my behavior and thinking didn't make any sense.

People with Autism Spectrum Disorders can see things that "normal" people can't, because their brains are "wired" differently. Albert Einstein was thought to be on the autism spectrum, and I read somewhere that his brain was removed after his death to be examined, and it wasn't exactly the same as that of a "normal" person.
Lisa
Providence, RI
October 7, 2013
To Anonymous in Albany
If you struggle daily with a physical, mental, or neurological condition then, imho, you have a special soul. I believe people are challenged according to their ability in order to induce growth within the soul. Apparently if you did not have a challenge in your life it would have been the equivalent of an Olympic skier joining the kiddos learning the bunny slope. :-) You go, Champion!
Brandie B.
October 6, 2013
thank you
I just found out a few weeks ago that I am on the Autism Spectrum. I am trying to deal with this news and what it means. I know that it means that I will never ever be able to try "hard enough" , my attempts are never going to be enough-- to be like other people. And I feel damaged. And I feel cut off. Thank you, for the commentary. I really needed to hear something encouraging. Btw, I am 47, and I still have not managed to find 'community' or 'belonging'. I probably never will. Shira, I wish I could trade places with you for one day. Then you would see. But then again, I don't wish it on anybody.
Nichole
Pendleton, or
jewishidaho.com
July 29, 2013
Do just autistic CHILDREN have special souls?
Do just autistic children have special souls? I'm an autistic _adult_, so I want to know if I had one when I was an autistic child but now I don't.
Anonymous
Albany, NY
July 28, 2013
autism and Leviticus 21:21
Thank you for this commentary, Leviticus 21:21 bothered me for a long time , but Rabbi Shurpin explained it well.
As to those people who think autism is not a disability please take the time to visit a Care institution and see how the ones who are severely affected require full time care and help, including eating , dressing and toileting. It it true that the High-functioning individuals can be trained to live independently, but the Low-functioning individuals require constant care and supervision for their daily needs and safety. The reason why you do not see many of them out because families are very limited as to where we can go with our autistic children. We mainly stay in-doors. I hope people don't decide what autism is just by seeing what is portrayed in feel-good - movies or by the media, they often ignore the severe cases. Thank you Chabad for the care you show to the families and individuals affected by autism and other disabilities.
Anonymous
April 3, 2013
The Rebbe did say that autistic people are farther from us yet closer to G-d
the Rebbe -I can't attach the link but its a video that can be found on youtube. Thank you to all the commenters for sharing and thank you Rabbi for the explanation.
I believe that much of autism has to do with the schism between body and soul.
LEVI WEINSTEIN
SHEQEF
February 21, 2013
THANK YOU
I have two with Autism also - I have been searching for answers and the medical service cannot give me any, so I started to look for answers in spirituality.... I am now (after reading your article) much much more contented.
It's hard to think that when I am no longer on this planet that my boys are going to be alone....This brings me great comfort x Thankyou
Jayney
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