Monday, December 16, 2013

Why I Am Shaving My Head

In honor memory of Sam Sommer, Shmuel Asher Uzziel ben haRav Michael Aharon v’haRav Pesach Esther, 8 November 2005-14 December 2013

Monday, December 16, 2013

Sammy’s parents, Phyllis and Michael, were my classmates all the way through rabbinic school, from our first day in Jerusalem to ordination day in Cincinnati. Michael and I met during our interview process on the HUC-JIR campus in Cincinnati. I remember Michael cracking jokes as we chatted nervously before our Hebrew language exam. That was a long time ago. Phyllis was one of the very first people from our class whom I met after arriving in Israel; she was certainly the first to invite me to her home for Shabbat dinner. I can still recall that Shabbat gathering vividly—most of our class was there, and friendships begun that night I cherish to this day.

Phyllis’s gift for convening people into meaningful community was evident from that first encounter. She’s been bringing people together ever since. It’s part of who she is, as a rabbi and a parent and a human being. Because we were classmates, and because she is a generous and virtuosic blogger, and because a handful of times over the years we have seen one another or spoken by phone, I’ve been able to learn a great deal from Phyllis: as a rabbi, a parent, and a human being.

When Sammy was born, I was pregnant with my first child. I’ve watched Phyllis's kids grow up next to mine through the stories and pictures she’s shared online. When Sammy’s cancer was diagnosed, I felt a cold shadow of what it would be like to hear that news about a child of my own. Because it could just as easily be my child, or yours, if you have one. Every day it isn’t my child is a blessing for which I give thanks, but I’m done with gambling.

It’s time to find a cure. For Sammy, who is gone and has left us breathless and broken, and for Phyllis and Michael and Sammy’s siblings and their whole family. For the college acquaintances and neighbors and friends and millions of people I’ll never know whose children have died of cancer, for the people I have known without knowing they’d lost a child to cancer. Yes, for all those, but also for me, and for my child and my parents, and for you, and for all the children and parents now living and still waiting to be born.

Save a life, and you save an entire world. We lost the world this Shabbat, Sammy. Let’s try not to do that again.  

Like the Nazirite offering her hair at the end of her vow, like the captive foreign women who must shave their heads before joining the Jewish community, so I after learning that Sammy’s cancer was incurable, and now upon his death, will make a new start, in a world I would not have chosen, a world without Sammy, a world in which I can no longer pretend that childhood cancer has no dominion over me and my loved ones. That is why I’m shaving my head, and that’s why I’m asking everyone I know to support this cause. The first miracle I was praying for is lost. The next is still within our reach.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Hanukkah in Egypt

Standing on the parted shores of history
we still believe…

that wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt
that there is a better place, a promised land;
that the winding way to that promise passes through the wilderness.

That there is no way to get from here to there
except by joining hands, marching
—from Mishkan T’filah: A Reform Siddur

It has been a tough couple of weeks at my house.

First, on November 13th, four days after his eighth birthday, Samuel “Superman Sam” Sommer’s family, and the world, received the devastating news that his leukemia had returned, and that it is incurable. The little boy who inspired our Yom Kippur bone marrow donor drive, son of my friends and colleagues Rabbis Phyllis and Michael Sommer, is dying.

Then, early on November 17th, our cousin’s 20-year-old daughter was killed in a traffic accident. We heard this stunningly bad news on the 18th. As I write this, I am returning with Alec and our girls from Anna’s funeral in Illinois. Our hearts have broken. Just like every minute of every day, somewhere, someone’s hopes are destroyed, someone’s heart is broken.

If I weren’t already committed to an awareness of life’s uncertainty and fragility, and therefore to a life lived in faith, I would be now. The God I believe in neither causes car wrecks nor allows them to happen; my God does not determine who gets cancer and who survives. But I do believe, as a wise layperson once reminded me, that “God provides”; I would only add, “for those who have faith.” Call it God, the universe, or one’s own best judgment: whatever we feel is guiding our steps, we can only trust in it and walk bravely into the future—or risk paralysis by pain, fear, and doubt. Life is fragile, but resilient. It stubbornly persists wherever it can, though separated from death, its own destruction, by nothing more than a hair’s breadth. Somehow, Anna’s sister and her parents will go on. Sammy’s family will go on, and Sammy too, as far as he can. We all will.

With the gathering darkness heading into midwinter, we increase our Hanukkah lights each night. We acknowledge our reality, yet we neither despair nor surrender. We pray for miracles. In nature, light and life will return. It will catch us by surprise, and bless us.

Until then, the only thing any of us can do is to join hands, marching together, trusting that we will somehow get from here to our better place. Though it so often turns out not to be where, or what, we expected.