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 G-d 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 a disease resistant to band-aids and kisses. 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.
I never met his daughter, but her presence lingered under his skin, a love-tinged sadness that accompanied him on his travels. 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 G-d 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 erased the notion of “Aha” moments where we romantically find G-d, 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 sick and in pain, a daughter with an illness that might be fixed with the right formula of healing words. Beginning belated letters with apologies, he offered his maps with highlighted routes to G-d. 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 G-d 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 G-d 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.
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 I, 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 the manipulations of my mind. 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. To me, Sam will forever be the one who taught me my Jewish abra cadabra, the phrase that I repeat in darkness: Adonai Li v’Lo Irah. The Lord is with me, I shall not fear.