To the rest of the world, he was a rabbi and a scholar; a professor who penned hard-backed insights of Jewish theology and prayer. But to me, Sam was the quirky family friend whom I immediately gathered into my circle, bestowing him with an honorary ‘grandfather’ crown.
Sam graciously accepted his adopted status, and fulfilled the grandfather requirements with a stream of letters that followed me along my journey, reaching me amidst the dips of hopelessness and goading me to find faith when I reached for my white flag. He was the one I turned to with questions of God and the afterlife, desperate to borrow some of his stable surety, eager to learn the tidbits that gave him the strength to live in a world that threatened to hit below the knees.
Sam knew from heartache and words of pain flowed from his lips. He was fluent in the laments of unfairness and toiled with the haze of sickness and grief. Behind the published chapters and rabbinic lectures were tears of a desperate father pooled by his feet. He, too, had a daughter he couldn’t save; a daughter trapped in the maze of epilepsy, prisoner in a cell he was powerless to unlock. He understood the sorrow of a child in pain, mute to pleas of help, powerless to soothe her anguish. All of the lectures and learning, wisdom and training couldn’t be stirred enough to deliver the comfort of a cure.
He urged me to see the miracles involved in simply getting out of bed.
I never met his daughter, but her presence lingered under his skin, a love-tinged sorrow that was his permanent carry-on. He wrote me life’s details: new projects and classes, book tours and summer plans. He wrote of his support, his belief that there was a God who was waiting patiently by my side until I was ready to grab hold. He wrote of the clash between roles, struggling with the picture of who a rabbi was ‘supposed’ to be and his private struggles. He diminished the notion of “Aha” moments where we romantically find God, and spoke about the sanctity of ordinary, the elevated triumphs of a life well lived, the holiness in the mundane. He urged me to locate my spirituality, to see the miracles involved in simply getting out of bed.
Just as I adopted him as grandfather, Sam adopted me as surrogate daughter; also battling illness, although mine offering shards of hope and empowerment, if I chose to join the fight. I became the daughter debating the demons in my head, searching for the magic wand that would cure me of my desire to waste away, leaving bones and regrets in my wake.
Beginning belated letters with apologies, he offered his maps with highlighted routes to God. Rather than pontificate on a Higher Power who would swoop down with a magic wand, he put forth a different twist. He wrote about a police officer that had been in a hospital during a mass casualty, able to save a patient by holding a torn artery in a crowded ER. Sam taught me to hold my own artery to stop the bleeding. He instructed me to pick up my hand and apply pressure, knowing that God had brought me to this place and stood beside me, guiding my hand.
I would have preferred a magic wand. I wanted faith without duties, saving without action. I wanted the “Aha” moments, the light bulb dawning of being carried into health. I wanted a religion absent of obligations, a God that provided not only the cure but also the motivation. I wanted the prayer book Creator who cured the sick and rose the dead, allowing me to wallow in my misery until the miracle occurred.
My teacher was here and I was absent, lost in calorie counting and busy bowing to the scale.
I read his words and stifled my guilt, craving unconditional support rather than tools and steps to take. I resented the obligation, didn’t want to admit that my illness was treatable in a way that his daughter’s would never be. I resented the pleas to keep trying, keep working, and keep putting one foot in front of the other. I was tired of doing what was hard, choosing right over easy, toiling at a health that crumbled at my touch.
I knew he was right, backed by years of wisdom and fatherhood. I knew Sam loved me and would have waved his magic wand if he could; curing not only his daughter and me, but also the buried demons that tore at his soul. I knew he was right, and yet I did nothing. I wasn’t ready to hear his lesson, hadn’t taken the pre-requisites that allowed me to access holiness or stand in faith. My teacher was here and I was absent, wandering the halls with loneliness, lost in calorie counting and busy bowing to the scale.
And yet, his lessons were planted, seeds of hope and belief sprouting up unannounced years later.
We lost touch over the years, letters spaced further apart until I realize that it’s been at least five years since I wrote to him. I don’t know what his days look like or how his daughter is doing. I don’t know if he has managed to grasp holiness amidst the daily shuffle.
But I do know that I became ready to hear his lecture. I do know that I persevere in faith and continue to pick myself up with a guided hand. I do know that his wisdom wasn’t lost, but rather filed away until I was ready to hear it, a spark within dark years. I do know that there haven’t been “Aha” moments or magic wands, and yet I have learned how to reach out my hand and locate the blessings in my life.
To the rest of the world, he was a respected professor, rabbi, and scholar. To me, he will always be my adopted grandfather, wise and compassionate, patient and loving, the one who taught me the Jewish phrase I repeat in darkness: The Lord is with me, I shall not fear.