January 24, 2007

To two little girls I have never met,

I hardly know how to begin. How can I expect you to understand what I and people 20 times your age cannot fathom?

Perhaps I can start my letter to you with a letter I wrote to your mother last month:

Dear Beth,

A voice from the past, silent for far too long, calls out to you from across the continent with love and admiration.

It's Chavi Willig Levy, who (together with Michael) remembers you and your many kindnesses on our behalf. Examples abound. Do you remember when you saved the day because Aharon, down with the flu, couldn't attend my nephew's wedding? Do you remember when you arrived at our apartment at some ungodly hour of the morning to help me catch an early flight to Atlanta?

And do you remember when you and Ari, soon after you announced your engagement, joined us for supper on Shavuot, braving an unexpected tempest as you headed northward with nothing to protect you but our garbage bags and your dazzling smiles?

I know that we have been out of touch, but as you brave the tempest now in your midst, please know how much we love you. With every fiber of our being, we pray for your complete recovery.

With love to you, Ari and the girls,

Chavi

Three weeks later, the New York Times published an article headlined "Cancer Deaths Decline for Second Straight Year." I read it numbly. Your mother was gone.

I'll never know if she ever read my letter. But now that you have (or will someday, when you're older), I feel better, I feel as if she did, for she is -- and always will be -- a part of you.

When I met your mother, my children were just about your age. Because I get around in a motorized wheelchair (and can it zoom! Someday, I'd love to take you on it for a spin.), she would take time off from her busy schedule at Columbia University and help me out in a million different ways. Sometimes she'd take my kids to the playground, sometimes she'd help me buy groceries or file papers or make delicious pancakes. And sometimes she and I would just enjoy each other's company.

She had eyes of blue which shone with unconditional kindness.

Your mom, I'm sure you know this, was brilliant. I was in awe of her brilliance. Unlike me, who studied French literature in college and eyed math from a distance with stark terror, she earned her bachelor's degree -- and, soon after, her Ph.D. -- in mathematics (all the while immersed in Torah study). Until I met her, I entertained this silly notion that all people who studied mathematics were, you know, nerds -- serious, boring, awkward and unattractive. But your mother was fun-loving, captivating, graceful and gorgeous.

Her beauty took many forms. Her face, devoid of makeup, glowed with a luminous light. Her long curly blond hair glinted in the sunlight. Her smile was ever-present. And she had eyes of blue which shone with unconditional kindness.

When I think of your mom, when I see her in my mind's eye, it is her eyes that I see most clearly. And when I see those blue eyes smiling at me, some of my sorrow recedes and serenity takes its place. I think I know why:

One week after your mother left us, I sat numbly in shul as my rabbi spoke of God's conversation with Moses beside the burning bush. I tried to pay attention but I couldn't. Well, to be honest, I wouldn't. My rabbi quoted Moses: "When I come to the children of Israel and say, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they say to me, ‘What is His name?', what shall I say to them?" Then my rabbi quoted God's reply: "I AM THAT I AM. Tell the children of Israel: ‘I AM has sent me to you.'"

What is that supposed to mean?, I thought. And then, as if reading my mind, my rabbi quoted the great commentator, Rashi: "I shall be with them in this sorrow as I shall be with them in other sorrows."

I tried to take heart from those words, but I couldn't. It didn't seem as if God had been with Beth.

But then, a moment later, my rabbi said, "And in a few weeks, we'll be reading the Torah portion that offers proof of God's love and constant presence." I leaned forward. "In a few weeks," he continued, "we will read of the brick that God keeps at the foot of His throne to remind Him of the bricks the Children of Israel made in Egypt."

I imagined that brick: ugly, a mix of mud and blood. (According to a Talmudic sage, a woman enslaved by Pharaoh gave birth prematurely to her baby as she was forced to march in the mud. The baby, unintentionally trampled by the slaves surrounding the mother, was embedded in the clay beneath their feet. Down came the angel Gabriel, who shaped that tragic lump of clay into a brick and placed it at the feet of the Almighty.) But when I got home, I reached for my Bible and read: "They saw a vision of the God of Israel, and under His feet was something like a sapphire brick, like the essence of a clear [blue] sky" (Exodus 24:10). Not an ugly, bloody brick at all!

Suddenly, it was as crystal clear to me as a cloudless sky: That brick, the product of our suffering, was precious to God, so precious that He wanted it beside Him, at the foot of His throne, at all times. And because it was precious to Him, it was instantly transformed from mud and blood into a glowing sapphire blue.

I am not a Torah scholar; I don't know much about the goings-on in heaven or, for that matter, on earth. But of one thing I am certain, girls: Your mother's kind, shining eyes of blue were sparks of that celestial brick.

Your mother was -- and always will be -- a part of that brick of sapphire blue.

I don't know why those holy sparks were summoned back to the foot of God's throne. But I do know that your mother was -- and always will be -- a part of that brick of sapphire blue.

But now that she's gone, how can she continue to be a part of those who loved her? Perhaps the answer lies in the Hebrew word for sapphire blue: sapir. It is linked to another Hebrew word: l'sappeir, to retell. Yes, your mother's shining eyes of sapphire blue are no longer with us but our stories, our memories of her goodness will send sparks throughout the world. The world will be graced once again with Beth's light. And so will our hearts.

In loving memory of Dr. Beth Samuels, z"l