This week my daughter Rivka, who is two, learned to say two new words.

“MINE!” she squeals when she sees a desired toy in her brother’s hand.

“NO!” she insists when it’s time to get into pajamas and go to bed.

For any child, the acquisition of a new word is an event worth celebrating. For Rivka, who has Down syndrome, these moments are even more treasured. Each new word she utters is a product of weeks and weeks of hard work.

This week my daughter learned to say two new words

For the moment, my heart overflows with pride as I witness her burgeoning independence, her sense of self. I know that in a few months or years from now, these traits may not always seem so endearing, but for now, I kvell.

Watching her blossom into a personality of her own makes me reflect on the process of identity—how we become who we are. An infant is born fully dependent on his or her parents, and it’s only during the second or third year of life that the child makes a monumental discovery—”I am my own person! I have my own wants and needs! I can even say ‘NO!’ and defy the powerful people around me!”Then we spend the rest of the child’s formative years teaching him or her, “Yes, you are your own person, but you also need to think about other people. It’s not all about you.”

Isn’t that a step backwards? Weren’t we just celebrating the child’s independence? Would it be better if the child never discovered, “I am me”?

When the Tzemach Tzedek, the third Chabad Rebbe, was a small child, his grandfather, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the Alter Rebbe, brought him to school for the first time. He instructed the teacher to begin teaching his grandson the first verse of Parshat Vayikra, “And G‑d called to Moses.”

The child immediately noticed that the word vayikra was written with a small letter alef at the end, and he asked his grandfather for the reason.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman meditated for a while, and then told his grandson: “Adam was G‑d’s own handiwork, and G‑d Himself testifies that his wisdom was greater than all the Heavenly angels. But Adam was aware of his own greatness and was impressed with himself, and thus he sinned with the Tree of Knowledge.

“Moses, in contrast, also knew his own greatness, but not only did he not become impressed with himself, he was the humblest man on earth. He thought to himself that any other person who had been born with his gifts and privileges would certainly have achieved more than he did.

“With Adam, whose awareness of himself caused him to sin, his name is spelled with a large alef.1 Moses, whose awareness of himself led him to have the greatest humility, is represented by the small alef in ‘vayikra.’”

If the Alter Rebbe merely wanted to teach his grandson a lesson in humility, why did he have to contrast Moses with Adam? Wouldn’t it have been enough simply to point out that the letter alef in vayikra was small, because Moses considered himself small?

Why did he have to contrast Moses with Adam?

Based on the Alter Rebbe’s interpretation, one may think that the large letter in Adam’s name is meant to reflect negatively on him. Actually it’s the reverse—the large letter testifies to his greatness, and represents his state before his sin, when he truly was the greatest of men, a level even higher than Moses.2

As descendants of Adam, all of us have a spark of his soul and have within us at least some share of his enormous gifts. And we need to be aware of this, because this awareness is the first step to actualizing our tremendous potential.

This is why the Alter Rebbe digresses into a discussion of Adam and the big alef. He wanted to first impress on his grandson the importance of recognizing his own greatness and potential. At the same time, he wanted to teach his grandson, the future Jewish leader, that even the greatest people must be cautious not to overrate themselves, not to overlook the gifts and contributions of others.

You can be a very humble person and consider yourself exceedingly small, but comfort yourself with the knowledge that there are others who are even smaller and less successful than you. This is not true humility. To be humble is not only to be aware of your own limitations, but to actively look for the good in other people, and to realize that if they had your qualities, perhaps they would have achieved even more than you. This was the type of humility that Moses had—and the way he rectified the sin of Adam.

One of the challenges of being the parent of a child with special needs is filtering out the voices of those who try to limit your child’s potential. The ones who remind you to “be realistic,” to accept that she may never reach the milestones of her typical peers.

It is up to me to look for the ways she is exceptional

Instead, when I look at my daughter Rivka, I see a child of Adam, a child of unlimited strengths and capabilities. She probably will need no reminders not to consider herself so great—because the world will do that for her. It’s up to me, and her teachers, and her peers, to actively look for the ways that she is exceptional. It’s so easy to dismiss people with special needs, to only see the things they can’t do. Moses teaches us to do otherwise. It takes the greatest among us to perceive the value of the smallest.

Today, I celebrate Rivka coming into her own. It is my wish that from today forward she will say “mine!” to good deeds, to happiness, to acts of kindness and love. And she will say “no!” to wrongdoing, “no” to any voice that limits her or tells her that her life does not have the same meaning or value as others. She amazes and humbles me every day with her accomplishments, and it is the greatest gift and privilege to be her mother.

(Based on Likutei Sichot vol. 17, pp. 1-8.)