Uri Benenfeld was called to the Torah for the first time this past Shabbos. On the face of it, that does not sound so remarkable; no doubt many Jewish boys had their first aliyah on Shabbos.
The difference, however, is that Uri cannot move any part of his body. He lives wracked with pain. But Uri can speak. And he can do mitzvos. For years, his father Moshe has been taking him in a wheelchair and special ambulance to the Satmar Bikur Cholim so that he can offer chizuk (encouragement) to the sick.
Before his bar mitzvah, he told his parents that he wanted to use his bar mitzvah money to sponsor the meals at Masbiah Soup Kitchen in Boro Park on the day of his bar mitzvah. So the day before he visited Masbia to personally oversee the preparation of the meals.
At the end of his visit, Uri told the manager of the restaurant, "Thank you very much for letting me come here and do mitzvos. I think that I did at least three mitzvos today. Probably some of the people who come here to eat are sick. So there is an aspect of bikur cholim (visitation of the sick). And for sure, the soup kitchen qualifies as hachnassas orchim (feeding and housing guests). And then, there is the mitzvah of tzedakah itself."
On the day of his bar mitzvah, Uri did not have the strength to put on tefillin until late in the afternoon. And he had to ask Rabbi Shimshon Sherer, the rav of his family's shul, to gather together his tzitzis so he could kiss them. But he did both with excitement.
At his bar mitzvah celebration, Uri spoke about what a privilege it was for him to be born Jewish. "I'm so lucky to be Jewish, even though I know it is going to be hard to put on tefillin. But I'm going to do it."
When someone asked him what was his favorite bar mitzvah present, he answered without hesitation: his tefillin. The tefillin shel yad, he admitted, is very hard to get on. But the tefillin shel rosh goes on easily, and he feels so special when he is wearing his tefillin.
When one sees a young person suffering so terribly, it is inevitable to ask: Why? There is no answer to that question, and cannot be from our earthly perspective. But we do not have to ask ourselves what is the purpose of Uri's life. He inspires anyone who has met him to think a bit more deeply about each mitzvah. He challenges those of us who take our ability to put on our tefillin in the morning for granted and rarely take the time to reflect on what a privilege it is to have been commanded to do so.
And when we see a young boy, who has suffered from a degenerative disease almost his entire life, able to focus his thoughts on what he can do for others, how can we not wonder at our own inability to think about anyone else when we have a hangnail or a canker sore?
On a recent Shabbos in Flatbush, I went to visit Uri. He was sleeping, but at least I saw how his parents, Moshe and Debby Benenfeld, and his older sister Rochele have devoted themselves to him. They built an addition to their home that is in effect a fully equipped hospital ward. The theme of Uri's bar mitzvah celebration was, "This is the day that Hashem has made; let us rejoice and be glad on it." And his parents and sister were fully entitled to their rejoicing. They too challenge us to ask whether we have done everything that we can for our own children.
SEEING AND HEARING about Uri's determination to wrest every possible mitzvah from his life, I could not help reflect about how careless we often are with our own lives. Three weeks ago, a reader sent me an Email, in which she described seeing a father driving down the street with a young child on his lap and another two young children standing in the back seat without seat belts. Her efforts to signal to the driver were unavailing so she took down the license plate number and called the police line for reporting dangerous driving.
The dispatcher's first question to her was, "Were they chareidim?" Now, I don't think for a minute that all those who endanger their lives or those of their children are chareidi. But how can we understand that such behavior exists at all in our community, much less that it is not uncommon?
Surely a Torah perspective should give us a heightened awareness of the preciousness of each moment. Hasn't each of us heard many times how the Vilna Gaon cried on Yom Kippur over six minutes that he could not account for in the preceding year, and how he lamented on his deathbed his imminent departure from a world in which each moment affords many opportunities to acquire eternal reward. And if each moment is precious, how much more so our very lives?
Yet we frequently act as if being the Chosen People means that the laws of physics have no application to us. A friend of mine recently tried to convince a young mother strapping her infant's car seat into the front seat that she was doing something very dangerous because the air bag could crush an infant. To no avail. The woman had no patience to take the time to maneuver the car seat into the back seat.
In America, summer in the country often takes the form of a game of Russian roulette, with disaster waiting to happen in the form of some late night accident; in Israel, the annual Lag B'Omer pilgrimage to Meron does the same.
Speed limits and fire codes are not rules enacted by gentiles to embitter our lives, but to protect those lives. And the rule, "Hashem protects fools," offers us no shield against recklessly ignoring well known dangers.
If we all spent a few moments prior to Shavuos reflecting on the thrill Uri Benenfeld experiences with the performance of each mitzvah, our celebration of the receiving of the Torah would be greatly intensified. And our determination to guard our own lives so that we can continue learning Torah and performing its mitzvos would be strengthened.