Communication, Autism & Torah: A Bar Mitzvah Reflection
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Communication, Autism & Torah: A Bar Mitzvah Reflection

Jonah Wilbur, a middle school student, shares a powerful D'var Torah about the power of words.

Jonah and his family. Courtesy of Ali Wilbur
Jonah and his family. Courtesy of Ali Wilbur

Editor’s Note: We are grateful to Jonah for sharing his D’var Torah, in which he shares about his own experience living with autism.

My Torah portion is Chaye Sarah and is about Abraham’s servant (who was possibly Eliezer), being tasked with finding a wife for Abraham’s son Isaac, in Nahor, the city that he was born in, rather than amongst the Canaanites.  Eliezer took ten camels with him and when he arrived in Nahor he went to the well, where women would draw water in the evening. There he prayed for a sign from G-d saying, “let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink and I will will also water your camels’ let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac.”  

Eliezer prayed for a sign, because he wanted to find the right wife for Isaac. However, he didn’t pray for just any sign, for example a woman with rainbow hair, but a specific sign that was significant.  He wanted to find a wife for Isaac with specific qualities, such as being kind, caring and a person who was thoughtful. This specific sign tells us that Rebecca held these traits, because not only did she give Eliezer a drink, she also watered all of his camels, which was a difficult task, as we know camels can drink gallons of water, when they are thirsty.  She even went as far as inviting Eliezer to stay with her family and even room for his camels to stay overnight.  

When Rebecca arrives at the well we are told in the Torah that she is very beautiful. The Torah says she was physically beautiful, but we can also infer that she was a beautiful person, based on her kindness and generosity.  I believe that the Torah is telling us that Rebecca had all of these qualities and was not only attractive, but was also a good person. I think he chose this specific sign, because he believed that kindness was the most important trait in identifying a wife for Isaac, rather than attractiveness.

Rebecca inspires us to be kind to all living things and also especially to other people and to choose our words carefully.  We need to be kind so that we don’t insult or offend people. I personally have experienced other kids using unkind words towards others and I have made it my mission to tell them to stop. For example, it is very common for kids my age to say, “that’s gay,” as a response to something someone says or to an action.  They do not realize that they could be offending someone else, by the way they are speaking, as they are not using their words properly. Whenever this happens, I tell them not to use the words in the way they are using them. I try to teach that they need to be careful with how they speak. If someone uses unkind words it makes people feel bad about themselves.  This Torah portion is trying to teach us that kindness is one of the most important qualities to have as a person.

As a person with autism, it is hard to communicate with people sometimes.  I know what it feels like to be different and it can be hard to understand people’s intentions.  I especially have trouble understanding sarcasm or if someone is tricking me. Throughout my life, my parents, my brother and my teachers have stood up for me and have shown me how to be kind and how to protect others. 

Last year I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Temple Grandin speak.  If you are not aware Temple Grandin is a person with autism, who is known for her work towards ethical treatment of animals and being kind.  She believes that there is a place for everyone in this world no matter their ability. As Temple Grandin states, “I am different, not less.”  As a Bar Mitzvah and Jewish adult, I intend to live my life just like Rebecca in my Torah portion. I will continue to help people and animals. I will be kind towards others and will choose my words carefully. I will make sure that people don’t feel isolated or discriminated against.       

Jonah and his family are members of Or Hadash in Fort Washington, PA.

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