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Climbing the Ladder

October 6, 2011 | by Rabbi Nechemia Coopersmith

Is life really fair?

The other day my son Yehuda, who has Down syndrome, was called a "retard" by a younger boy. Thankfully this is a rare occurrence, and at the Jerusalem cheder where he is mainstreamed, his second grade classmates more or less accept him. But the name-calling still stung me.

Yehuda on the other hand, wasn't fazed one bit; at age 7 he doesn't yet realize he's different than others. He just called him "retard" back!

But that time is going to come – if not this year, then probably next, when the disparity between him and his classmates will be even greater – and it makes me wonder: How is it fair that God created him with such disadvantages?

How is it fair that God created my son with such disadvantages?

My wife and I are extremely grateful that Yehuda is very high functioning – he speaks two languages, knows how to read, he's working on his writing skills, his comprehension is decent and he's got a great sense of humor and kindness streak that make him very endearing – but there is an obvious gap. His speech isn't perfectly clear, he doesn't have the coordination (yet) to ride a bike without training wheels, some of his social skills are off (there's only so many times one can watch him do his "magic trick" or listen to the same joke) and there's no way he can keep up entirely with the second grade workload. And this inequality is only going to grow.

Related Article: Raising Yehuda

The "retard" epithet magnified the reality of the differences between Yehuda and other kids his age which I still futilely try to minimize. And it stealthily conjured up that question: Where's the fairness in all of this?

One doesn't need to have a mentally challenged or handicapped child to provoke the issue. Why does God make one child a naturally gifted student who excels at anything she puts her mind to, and another child an adventure seeker who struggles scholastically? Why does God make some people beautiful and slim and others less so? Why are some people born in the lap of luxury with all the advantages of western society and others are born in poverty in third world countries?

The question in various forms plagues most people. Who hasn't woken up in the morning at one time or another bemoaning life's inequalities: why did he get the promotion and not me? Why does she have the perfect husband, the perfect house, the perfect kids and not me? Why was I born with this skin, this hair, this nose?

When we measure our success by comparing ourselves to others we are guaranteed a life filled with discontent and unhappiness. There will always be someone who has more advantages than you. This is the calculus of unfairness.

Personal success has absolutely nothing to do with anyone else. It should be measured against oneself; how much am I actualizing my potential? The yardstick for fulfillment and meaning is based on how many rungs of my ladder I have climbed, not how far ahead I am compared to others.

God creates each person with a unique mission in life, with the challenge to bring out his inner strengths and wrestle with his set of weaknesses. On that score, whatever deck of cards we were dealt, we are all equal.

Comparing Yehuda's success to others reduces fulfillment to external results rather than the struggle inherent in life itself.

Comparing Yehuda's success to others negates his soul's uniqueness and masks the primary spiritual challenge in exerting his free will. It reduces fulfillment to external results (which are ultimately not in our control) rather than the struggle inherent in life itself ("According to the effort is the reward" Ethics of the Fathers 5:26). Yehuda will never be able to fully keep up. So what? He isn't the same as others, just as others are not the same as him. It only becomes 'unfair' when I make the irrelevant comparison to others.

The wisdom in this perspective may be obvious, but because we live in a material world, it's a real struggle to stop comparing ourselves to others and live with the awareness that our life's purpose is to strive to bring out our inner potential, whatever it may be.

Sitting in the sukkah gives us the opportunity to reinforce the idea that the basis for our real self worth is internal, not external. It's the great equalizer. We all leave our comfortable homes, whether they're big or small, and live for a week in a hut with the stars overhead, recognizing how fleeting the physical world truly is. "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity," we read in Ecclesiastes during the holiday. After attaining the piercing clarity of what's truly important in life during the intense High Holiday period, we have renewed strength and focus to translate our inspired vision of ourselves into action.

It is no wonder that the holiday of Sukkot is called "zman simchateinu" – the time of our joy. Living in the shadow of God's embrace, we realize life is fair after all.

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