My Son, My Rebbe

“A person’s rebbe is one who teaches wisdom, and not one who taught the Written and Oral Torah” – this is Rabbi Meir’s opinion. Rabbi Yehudah taught, “Whoever has taught most of the student’s wisdom.” Rabbi Yosi says, “Even if the rebbe did no more than make the student’s eyes light up from an explanation of a single selection from the Oral Torah, that teacher is still considered to be the student’s Rebbe.”
Bava Metzia 33a

The scene: one Shabbat morning. As the Shaliach Tzibbur was replacing the Torah Scrolls into the Ark, a member of our congregation whispered to me, “I want you to know that from now on, whenever I see a Torah service, I will always think of your Jacob. The way he dances before the Torah makes me smile.”

Her remark went straight to my heart, not merely because Jacob is my ten-year-old son, but because Jacob has autism. Autistic kids don’t often get noticed for what they have to teach. They don’t often get a chance to see just how much they give to other, less autistic people. They are not often praised as teachers of Torah.

My Jacob is a teacher of Torah. He makes my eyes light up. He is my Rebbe.

Jacob teaches me to rejoice in the Torah. Every Shabbat, Jacob awakens asking to see the Torahs. Once we are at the synagogue, he waits as patiently as he can for the morning prayers to finish so the Torah service can commence. As they open the Ark to remove the Holy Torah, Jacob’s excitement and glee sweep him away. He leaps, he squeals, he smiles and runs over to hug me and his mother before he cavorts away to spin, squeal and dance some more. He repeats this dance to the Torah when they return the scroll to the Ark. As Jacob dances, I look nervously around the room, worrying that someone to tell me to stop him. In our minyan, the Library Minyan of Temple Beth Am, that never happens – others smile along with him. Some even clap to his rhythm.  Like King David before him, Jacob reminds us to dance before God, that the Torah is a gift, that joy is a mitzvah. The author Rebecca Goldstein writes, “The dance was absurd, and the dance was the truth.” Jacob dances truth.

 Jacob reminds me to bring music into my spiritual life. During the Festival of Sukkot (Booths), there is a kabbalistic custom of inviting Ushpizin, holy guests to symbolically sit in the Sukkah with us. Traditionally these guests are the Patriarchs and Prophets. My family – along with many other moderns – also invites the Matriarchs and great women of Biblical and Rabbinic antiquity. This year, I asked my children who they would want to invite if they could invite any person – living or dead – to join us in the Sukkah. Jacob (who uses Facilitated Communication, a cooperative typing technique, to speak) told us that he would invite King David. When I asked him why, he responded, “Because the music would be beautiful.” The Tikkunei Zohar teaches, “There are palaces that open only to music.” Jacob’s music opens celestial palaces.

Jacob shows me the power of faith. At Valley Beth Shalom’s Tikvah Program, Jacob and his class were taught an abridged version of the Exodus story. Elana (my wife/his mother) told him that part of the original narrative that had been omitted, so she explained that the reason Moses had to leave Egypt was that he had killed an Egyptian. Moses had been so inflamed by the injustice of the taskmaster striking an Israelite slave, so filled with solidarity for his people, that he had struck down the Egyptian. That was why Moses fled to the wilderness. Jacob asked Elana where that story came from, and she explained that this more complete version was from the Torah. Jacob typed, “I like the movie version better.” Elana asked him why, and he said, “Because in the movie, Moses doesn’t get to be Pharaoh; his brother does. And that’s more like my life.”

Elana said, “Yes, but in the Torah, Moses has difficulty speaking, yet God chooses him anyway, even though Aaron speaks better.”

Jacob responded, “Maybe I do like the Torah version better after all.”

At which point, Jacob’s autistic friend and classmate took the keyboard and typed, “If I had to appear before Pharaoh, he wouldn’t have listened to me.”

Jacob retrieved the keyboard and typed, “If you went before Pharaoh, God would make Pharaoh listen.”

I carry that piece of Torah into every struggle for justice, for decency, for inclusion. God will make Pharaoh listen.

I know that is true because my Rebbe told me so. My Rebbe is my son.


Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson ( is the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, where he is Vice President. He is the author of The Bedside Torah: Wisdom, Dreams, & Visions (McGraw Hill) and Jewish Answers to Real-Life Questions (Alef Publishing).