Baruch was the oldest child in the family. Ever since he was a small boy, he had been considered a little strange. This was during the ’60s.
Baruch’s parents were both Holocaust survivors. Like many other Holocaust survivors, they had no relatives. All they wanted in life was to raise their three children — Baruch and his two sisters Esther and Sarah — l’Torah l’chuppah, ul’maasim tovim. And so they sent the children to the local Talmud Torah.
The melamed in Baruch’s cheder was a good-hearted soul, albeit with not much patience. He had only one goal, and that was to continue in America with the same method of chinuch as in pre-war Europe. Despite the reminders that this was America and there had been a devastating war in Europe, the melamed insisted that he would do whatever it took to get the children to listen. If they didn’t learn the simple way, they would have to learn the hard way.
Baruch arrived at cheder together with the other children every morning. But while the others listened, Baruch did not. The rebbi spoke to him. Baruch did not answer. “Look at me!” the rebbi shouted, but Baruch made no eye contact. “Answer me!” Baruch remained silent as if in his own world.
Weeks turned into months and Baruch’s parents were called to the Talmud Torah to discuss Baruch’s odd behavior with the menahel and the melamed, who in fact could not pinpoint to the devastated parents what the problem was.
But the children in the class seemed to have figured it out on their own. They started calling Baruch “the meshugene.” The melamed tried to stop them when he heard, but they wouldn’t listen. And so the label spread from one class to the other, until the entire cheder was referring to Baruch as “the meshugene,” at first only behind the backs of his parents and siblings, but eventually to their faces as well. It didn’t take long for the demeaning nickname to be adopted in the local shul and the entire community — “Baruch the meshugene.”
As his strange behavior became more pronounced, and without anyone ever seriously trying to find out what Baruch’s problem actually was, his parents had no choice but to commit him to a mental institution, where he remained for many years.
At home, Esther and Sarah, wonderful girls, good students, bore witness to the misery of their poor parents, who seemed to wither away before their eyes. The parents, eaten up by their pain, passed away with no one to say Kaddish for them.
The girls grew older and, when it came time for shidduchim, no one wanted to marry them, because they were the sisters of Baruch the meshugene. After many years, Sarah finally got engaged. Not to the type of boy their parents had envisioned. Certainly not what they had struggled, hoped, and survived for, but at least he was Jewish. “Who cares?” Sarah asked her sister Esther bitterly. “At least to his family, I am not the sister of Baruch the meshugene.”
Esther never got married.
She decided to dedicate herself to her brother Baruch. She threw herself into studying psychology, earned a degree, and landed herself a high position in a mental health institution. Finally, it was time do some research on what had transpired with Baruch over the years. Arriving at the institution where Baruch had spent the greater part of his life, she demanded that the staff hand over his files so that she could evaluate his condition. At first they refused to share the records with her, but after much persistence they finally gave in.
“Deep Autism” were the first words that jumped out at her. “Autism?!” She shouted in deep shock. “Because of autism my brother was confined to an institution for so many years?”
Esther’s mission in life became to get her brother Baruch out of that institution, find him a better place, and take him home from time to time.
The Shabbos before Rosh Hashanah, Esther brought Baruch home. In the afternoon, she took him out for a walk. It didn’t take long before they met old acquaintances of her parents. After exchanging the usual formalities, they asked her who the man with her was. “This is my brother Baruch,” she answered proudly. The surprise and shock were written all over the couple’s faces. As they continued walking, she heard them saying, “Can you believe it? Baruch the meshugene is back!”
The couple certainly did not mean for Esther to hear them, but with their careless words they managed to reopen a wound that would never heal.
“Today, as a professional, I know,” says Esther, “that there are many different ways and methods to help children like my brother. Today children like these are not confined to an institution. There are baruch Hashem different organizations that deal with all kinds of mental health problems and conditions.
“Yet even these phenomenal organizations are unfortunately considered arei miklat — theinternal galus. True, the patients are not chained or locked up, but there are definitely borders. ‘You are wonderful and we are very proud of you, as long as you stay within the parameters of your designated places.’ Though the words remain unspoken, the message is clear — ‘Please keep your distance.’”
And when it comes to shidduchim, there are distinct boundaries, “We are very happy that you found your place, Baruch, but to be meshadech with your family?! …”
“Don’t look around to try to figure out who I am,” says Esther, or “who Baruch the meshugene is … in which community this story took place, or what happened over 40 years ago.”
Just look around and see how many Esthers there are among us — because of a “meshugene” brother or some other issue which in many cases are minor.
Look around and see how many pure neshamos like Baruch who never sinned are being hurt by us every day.
“Hakadosh Baruch Hu chooses broken vessels. … Hashem heals the brokenhearted.”
Let us make sure that we are not the ones doing the breaking, instead of the healing.
G’mar chasimah tovah.