The Mystery of Elisha

By November 8, 2019Rabbi Tzemah's Blog

rabbi tzemah autistic sonAfter the high of the High Holidays and the earnest resolutions I made, everything I write seems somehow ordinary or mundane. This year, I am going to try to let my elevated feelings linger and chronicle the beginning of my work on the most difficult of my resolutions, understanding the other, trying to fathom the depths of my son Elisha, who is moderately autistic and speaks very little, trying to locate a pathway for him so that he can have a happy and fulfilling life. I hope we can all begin to follow through on our most difficult promises. We will often fail, but sometimes we will succeed, and our success will be glorious because of the hard work we put into it.

There is a saying in English that the eyes are the windows to the soul.

In most Western cultures, looking into someone’s eyes is seen as a sign of confidence and mutual respect. But what if looking into someone’s eyes is so deeply uncomfortable it causes you mental or physical anguish? What if you just can’t do it? Recent studies of people on the autistic spectrum have shown that due to different neural wiring this is often the case. Western society has placed a premium on something that is exceedingly difficult for a significant percentage of the population.

In Japan, not looking someone in the eye is a sign of respect in many contexts.

Does it have to be this way? I don’t know. In Japan for example, not looking someone in the eye is a sign of respect in many contexts. One of my clearest memories of Japan is sitting on a crowded subway, but feeling so calm because no one was trying to catch my eye, no one was looking at me.

I owe it to my son Elisha to find a pathway for him that grants him a happy childhood, but one that also challenges him without scarring him, without forcing him to look into someone’s eyes if it hurts him. This is such a difficult needle to thread.

What if I am destined to fail with Elisha? I don’t know if this is a battle I am going to win, and it is such an important battle. But fighting the good fight is important in and of itself. It strengthens our resolve to try the next hard thing, and sometimes we will succeed, I believe this with all my heart.

Rabbi Tzemah Yoreh