I am a rabbi. Lighting candles to inaugurate and sanctify the sabbath is a cornerstone of my faith tradition. My son, who has autism spectrum disorder, is scared of the flames.
Having a child often means relinquishing expectations, embracing the child you’ve brought into the world with unconditional love. Having a child with autism spectrum disorder demands letting go of prescribed traditions, and a total reframing of my experiences. Autism Spectrum Disorder manifests itself differently from person to person. As parents, we learned strategies to help our son in difficult situations. Going to a new setting? Let him take a tour immediately upon arrival — getting his bearings is critical to his ability to thrive. Unexpected change in plans? Practice listing as many “plan b” options as possible. Over time our family has become skilled at adapting to our son’s needs and balancing them with the well-being of our family unit as a whole. That isn’t to say it is easy.
In the spring of 2020, in those opening days of the pandemic, we all struggled to adjust to what was termed the “new normal,” which, in fact, was anything but “normal.” The absence of school meant the absence of structure. It fell to parents to construct the days, which dragged into weeks, then months. Celebrating Shabbat provides structure to Jewish life. Shabbat is a day separate from all others, a pause dedicated to rest and rejuvenation, to wholeness and holiness. Shabbat can be integrated into family life in any number of ways — from the traditional strictures forbidding the use of fire (electronics), writing, and traveling, to contemporary reimaginations of the day focused on connecting with family, friends and nature. Yet in all of its iterations, Shabbat is most recognizably initiated by two white candles, and the glow of their orange flame. The simple act of lighting candles can bring structure to a week, empower the celebration of our natural world, and ignite a connection to the vast unfolding story of the Jewish people.
Unless, of course, your son fears flames. When candles are lit, our son’s anxiety overwhelms him. This leads to tension, tirades and tantrums. Shabbat exists to highlight wholeness and holiness, a taste of shalom, perfect peace. This ideal could not be achieved for our son, or our family, with candles burning.
Our children found a solution to this obstacle. We happened to have dozens of battery-operated tea lights, which I used each week with Jewish patients in nursing homes. This work was put on hold for the pandemic, and the children claimed the tea lights as their own, using them to light dollhouses and forts. Upon realizing that they fit perfectly into a new pair of candlesticks that I had recently purchased, they asked if we could use them for our Shabbat experience.
As a rabbi well-versed in Jewish law, I could hear the arguments against allowing for these plastic lights to replace the traditional Shabbat candles. However, the existence of the pandemic had quickly rewired my brain to be open to new possibilities. And being a parent has taught me to be flexible. In that moment, surrounded by darkness, death and despair, our family found light.
Fifty-two Shabbats have come and gone since we began using the plastic tea lights in our new candlesticks. A full year of darkness in which challenges have demanded that we evolve in ways once previously unimaginable. But each week, we have found light on Shabbat. The glow of the plastic tea lights illuminates our path.