This Space is Really Sam's
BY AMY JOSEFA ARIEL
TOLDOT GENESIS 25:19 - 28:9
18 NOVEMBER 2017 / 29 CHESHVAN 5778
By all reports, Esau was a rather hairy guy. Maybe, like so many of my coworkers, he’d have spent November unshaven. Or maybe, like others, he’d have shaved everything on his face except the ‘stash.
I know. Toldot. Another rich parsha. So many things in it I could explore from family dynamics to gender to deception to parenting to idolatry. Instead, I’m distracted by Esau’s facial hair. Not really, though. What I’m really distracted by is that this week our parsha is Toldot. Sammy’s bar mitzvah parsha.
I’ve been having a hard time exploring anything within the text because between the ‘stashes and the parsha, all I can think about is Sam (z”l). A kid who never had facial hair to shave. I had forgotten about it until today, but during his treatment, Sammy took a series of photos with moustache props. Maybe that’s why my coworker’s goofy ’stashes have been reminding me of him.
When he died a few years ago he was just eight-years-old. On November 8th, he would have been 12. Did you hear about the 36 rabbis who shaved their heads to raise money and awareness about children’s cancer research? That was about Sammy. Both funding and awareness are critical because right now only 4% of federal funding goes toward researching pediatric cancer. Or maybe you have heard his mom, Rabbi Phyllis Sommer’s, TED talk about the language of death. Or you may have read her ima on and off the bima blog, or the blog she keeps about Sam. Or maybe it was another Sam shaving her head because of Sammy that you heard about. Of course, it’s also possible you have never heard about Sam at all. Until now.
When I met Rabbi Sommer, over 12 years ago now, she was pregnant. We were both staffing a youth retreat at OSRUI. I didn’t actually meet Sam until later, and I met him the way we often meet our colleague’s children. Phyllis and I had programs to run and something to teach, and Sam was her cute and funny, and often distracting, kid who hung out with us sometimes. I pushed Sammy on swings, we read books together, I got him snack a few times. I knew he liked turtles. And lizards. I knew Sam the way we know the children of friends who don’t live near us. I knew him . . . occasionally. Honestly, I didn’t think about him all that often.
Then he, like me, was diagnosed with Acute Myelogenous Leukemia.
Then he, like me, had a bone marrow transplant.
Then he, unlike me . . . died.
And now, I think about Sam all the time. I think about him almost as often as I think about my bone marrow donor who I’ve never met and who I call Valinor, but whose name is Ralph. Which is to say, I think about Sam almost as often as I briefly stop in a day to feel my heart beat and think about the blood it’s pumping. Some days more than others. Multiple times a day. Every day.
I have a hard time with some anniversaries. I also have a hard time with Toldot. It’s not an anniversary, really. How do we understand the weight of an anticipated date that never happened. That will never happen? I have no idea.
Sometimes, people ask me if I have survivor’s guilt.
I have a fair bit of experience thinking about guilt. Every year during the High Holidays I wrestle with the things I’ve done . . . and not done. I think about what I’m responsible for and how to hold myself accountable. I participate in the collective confession of sins in which I am complicit as a member of a community, or as a member of our broader society. I do teshuvah. I don’t have survivor guilt. There is nothing specific I could have done or not done that would have meant that Sam could be alive, too. Sam, or any of the other cancer patients I’ve known who have died. I do have survivor loneliness, though. For some cancers, like AML, there are just so few of us.
And that is what brings me back to our hairy Esau, and the hairy faces of my coworkers.
We humans are hairy creatures, some of us more than others, and what anyone chooses to do with the hair on their face or their head is their own business. Still, as Justin Birckbichler wrote after his own experience with testicular cancer, just shaving or not shaving isn’t enough. If we want to support cancer research, raise awareness, live in solidarity, honor and remember, and educate, we have to make it meaningful.
How could we do that?
We could post and read about risk factors.
We could encourage people who have testes to do testicular cancer self-exams. No excuses.
We could schedule ourselves screenings for colon cancer, cervical cancer, or other cancers – screenings that could detect cancer earlier increasing our chances to keep living.
We could donate blood. Many of us cancer patients need or needed blood transfusions during our cancer treatment. Mount Zion’s blood drive is November 29th, and Beth Jacob hosts a drive MLK weekend in January.
Bone marrow and stem cell transplants can cure people of blood cancers and other diseases. We could learn more and join the international registry or update our info. If you are pregnant you could donate the cord blood. In Israel? Contact Ezer MiZion. The IDF is a huge supporter of the registry.
We could donate money to any one of dozens of organizations raising funds for research, to improve patient care, to work for prevention, and to support survivorship.
One way to read Toldot is as a conversation about what it might mean to be a man. What does it mean as a man to take responsibility for one’s self, or for one’s actions? What does it mean to be a man in relationship with women? What does it mean to be a woman in relationship with men? How can any of that be generalized as non-gendered human experience? What does it mean to become an adult in a family and in a community?
I wonder what Sam - the child of not one, but two rabbis - I wonder what he would be thinking about this parsha right now aware that in one short year he’d be leading us in worship and learning as he became bar mitzvah. A son of the commandment, yes, but also more firm in his steps toward adulthood. I wonder what he would have taught us about Jacob and Esau. I wonder what Sam would have been like years after his bar mitzvah when he might have had hair on his face to shave. Or not to.
I’m here to share my own words on so many Torah portions. For this one, maybe I’ll just keep holding the space for Sam’s.