RABBI CHAIM PERKAL and his daughter, Rivka.
(photo credit: ALEI SIACH)
The festival of Hanukka, occurring each year at the height of winter, when the dark hours of night outweigh the hours of daylight, always arouses in me the thought that for good reason, this festival took place in this specific time frame.
As a child, I remember the sense of sudden sunset in what seemed like the middle of the day, in the middle of activities, in the middle of our wakefulness, and the onset of darkness being forced upon us. Such an odd feeling. I remember my surprise on seeing the hanukkia – the hanukka candelabra – which my father positioned on the window sill.
There, in the darkness, in one window after another, families lit their hanukkiot until the whole street was flooded by the light of heartwarming Jewish solidarity.
For a short while each day, there is no right or left, no secular or religious. There we all are, overcoming the darkness, preserving the spirit of Jewish victory.
When I matured and married, I encountered a different kind of darkness.
It, too, was a complete surprise, and came in the form of a senior physician informing my wife and me that our beloved daughter was autistic. The darkness became even darker when the immediate community, and our society, found it difficult to accept us. In those days, vast ignorance existed in this field, and special needs children were distanced from their families, and contact with them was limited or completely avoided. When we walked down the street together, people stared or, worse still, looked down and crossed to the other side of the street, as though we bore a contagious disease.
The playground would empty out when we arrived with our daughter, and often we were advised to keep her hidden away to prevent future risk to our “normal” children’s chances of marriage.
We found the advice offensive and insulting. It was indeed a time of weighty darkness.
Darkness and light are fundamental concepts in the Torah. The first two sentences of Genesis state: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was void and unformed, and darkness covered the abyss....” Immediately thereafter, God’s next action is to take action that produces light, and along with it, a huge change. Countless exegetists explore and explain the significance of light and dark. But I choose to see this as a message of great simplicity, which teaches us that light, for all its good aspects, is in fact unnatural and that we, too, must take action in order for it to shine through.
To my great joy, that was how my wife and I understood this sentence almost 30 years ago: We must take action. I remember the moment when I decided, along with several other parents of special needs children, to cope with our personal darkness and act for change. Together, we established “Aley Siach,” and right from the beginning, we set ourselves two important tasks. The first was to provide therapy and support for our special children and their families, and the second was to conduct explanatory educational activities towards promoting awareness and sensitivity towards these special populations. Every day of the year we remind the community that “The spirit of man is God’s lamp” (Proverbs 20: 27), that the souls of children are equally His lamp, and whoever causes their light to increase, increases her or his own light.
Now, almost 30 years later, I am pleased to tell you that light is indeed victorious over the darkness, and that the reality has changed entirely. Our society and communities, for the most, accept special needs children, and just as with the lights of Hanukka, view them as equals among equals. True, there are still some dark corners that the light has yet to reach, but we continue to work hard at bringing to the forefront these lights, so pure and so sincerely God’s lamp, in order to cast light on them and bring about the wished-for change.
This Hanukka, the “Alei Siach” population’s members will be lighting their Hanukkiot in all 50 “warm homes” run by the organization. I invite you to join them and together, increase the light – acceptance of the other.The author is the founder and CEO of the Alei Siach organization.