Recently, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner answered a question from parents who had a child with Down Syndrome. They wanted to know if the blessing marking good tidings or renewal – ‘shehechayanu’ - traditionally recited upon the birth of a child be recited for their newborn. Rabbi Aviner responded that the blessing should be recited, but accompanied by another - Baruch Dayan Emet – ‘Blessed is the True Judge,’ said when bad news, great loss, a death is suffered.
Driving in the car with my 17 year old daughter – she needed a lift across town – I mentioned Rabbi Aviner’s ruling.
‘So wait,’ she asked, ‘it is as if the child is born dead?’
‘What would you say?’ – I asked. Before she had the time to be uncomfortable for being put in that position, she replied, ‘shehahiyanu, of course.’
But wait, she added, ‘you cried when Shmuel was born.’
That was true. I was devastated when our now 10 year old son with Down Syndrome was born.
‘Does that mean you change your mind?’
She has a natural reverence for Rabbis, and after I told her that Rabbi Eliashiv, who passed away recently, had ruled that parents only say ‘Barukh Dayan Emet‘ I saw her hesitation. But she still volunteered: ‘even though the parents may be sad now, they didn’t lose anything’ – I might have interjected ‘except for their expectations’ – ‘and they don’t yet know,’ she continued, ‘the blessings they have gained.’
‘On this issue, you should be the posek, you should be the one giving legal rulings.’ That made her uncomfortable again.
So I went on, telling her of the conversation I had with a young father driving back to our neighborhood from a PTA meeting. ’I have seen you with Shmuel; you are so good with him.’ I smiled, taking the compliment. ’I saw,’ he continued, ‘you riding bicycles with Shmuel and his brother and sister.’
‘I have a brother with Down Syndrome,’ more reticent now, but continuing: ‘my father never took him out for bike rides, ‘in fact,’ his voice now sounding regretful, ‘I never went riding with him.’
So I realized, he had a brother who was a ‘Barukh Dayan Emet‘ baby, a brother whose birth was an ending, for whom the tears of the parents and the tearing away of their expectations were permanent, final. The Barukh Dayan Emet baby grew into the Baruch Dayan Emet adult – without any acknowledged potential, without possibility, without love. It was as if, when he was born, he was already dead.
The blessings that the sages of the Talmud created help cultivate perspective on the world, attitudes to time, actions, and events. The Barukh Dayan Emet ruling also does just that, creating psychological realities for parents; sociological, educational, even policy realities for communities: a pre-disposition to look at a beginning, where there is indeed potential – as an ending. With the Barukh Dayan Emet baby, there is only loss, parents who will always mourn what they wanted, and never cultivate the potential – or maybe even love – the child in front them.
So for parents asking: ‘should I say shehehayanu on the child born with Down Syndrome?’ ‘should I be hopeful even when my child doesn’t fulfill my expectations?’ – ask my daughter, Avital.
She knows the answer.