I recently ran across a heartwarming story which, when I read it, seemed to be clear and unambiguous in the truth of its message. Here it is:
In today’s world of troublesome headlines and distressing news, I found this story to be amazingly poignant, encouraging, and uplifting. When I shared it with Sid, he asked me, naturally, if it was true. I responded that I didn’t really care if it was or not, that it was like a story you would share with a child to teach values, for example, some of the more redemptive fairy tales where good wins over evil. I said it also reminded me of some of the Talmud studies where we learn moral lessons through Midrash.
Yet being the analyst that I am, I checked Snopes, only to find out there is a claim that this story is true. Interestingly, the name of the child had been changed from Shaya to Shay, from the original. Also, the name of the Jewish school for children with disabilities had been eliminated, and near to the end paragraph completely rewritten to remove any Jewish references:
From the original:
“’That day,’ said the father softly with tears now rolling down his face, those 18 boys reached their level of God’s perfection.’” (The reference to 18 “chai” significant.)
The suggested origin of the story cited is from “Perfection at the Plate” , written by Rabbi Paysach Krohn from the Maggid series. Rabbi Krohn claims the story is true and was known at the Jewish Center for Special Education on Kent Street in Brooklyn, a school that caters to Yiddish-speaking Orthodox Hasidic children.
Aside from the complete whitewashing of the story over the years from its Jewish origins, I also found upsetting the Snopes writer’s comments. She was horrified that the moral of the story was to expect the child to be able to perform to “normal” standards rather than teach others to accept disabled people on their own terms able to contribute to society as they are. The writer’s viewpoint: “This story counsels that ‘perfection’ be one of pity and dismissal of the actual person. And that can’t be right.”
First, it took me a moment to react since this was a reality check nowhere on my radar at that particular moment. As I thought about it, however, I agreed that the Snopes writer’s position is completely true, just not, in my opinion, applicable to the point of this story. It seemed in this case the child wanted to be part of the game on the same terms as the other players which may illustrate what the writer is suggesting, inappropriate societal expectations and their effect on the disabled. I agree that programs such as Special Olympics are absolutely wonderful and do create opportunities for disabled people to compete on their own terms. I encourage all efforts to support acceptance and encouragement of the disabled who bring to the table countless gifts and blessings to others by their being themselves engaging and competing as they are.
Although I appreciated the opportunity to challenge my thinking, in my opinion, this story was making a different point. I don’t agree that the story illustrated pity and dismissal. Had the writing retained the original author’s statements, the use of the word “perfection” as used in that version referred to the ability of the boys to see the beauty in Shaya. Their softened hearts and chesed brought them toward perfection. They became able to see Shaya as God sees us – with love and acceptance just as we are. Since the disabled child wanted to do this, those on the team grew in their abilities to put themselves in Shaya’s shoes, feel what he is feeling, accept him lovingly on his terms, act differently than they would otherwise may think to act. Shaya’s actions helped the boys to grow as young men, to become better people.
The story serves as a reminder, once again, of how easy it is to have tunnel vision, to only see our viewpoint, even in cases where there is good moral truth to differing opinions. We are reminded of the value of my mantra, “Conversation leads to understanding.” By the Snopes writer’s viewpoint, I was reminded of the many real accomplishments and contributions to society made by the disabled. Yet beyond that, the Snopes interaction spurred me to dig even deeper to the original writing. I was prompted to think even more incisively about what already was a wonderful story and gain insights I otherwise would have missed without openness to a differing opinion.
How to see more truths by stripping away the Jewishness of the tale is a harder challenge. Although the Snopes writer helped to remind me of another truth on this subject, she missed the major point about what was being said about perfection. I’m grateful to be able to share the Jewish nuance seen by Rabbi Krohn, a deeper message of light that should not be lost.
P.S. I took a jog right after writing this encouragement. As an affirmation of the point of this story as originally told, you guessed it, the first song “randomly” playing these lyrics at that moment from that Steve McConnell song I quote so often:
“If I could get one thing right,
In every moment of my life
It would be to see in you and me
The spark of God’s divinity
. . .
If I could get just one thing right
I’d want to see you through those eyes.”