Rabbi Steve Sager, z”l, died on May 15, 2022, just before reaching his 71st birthday. When he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2020, he decided to honor his birthday (and that of his father) with a zoom teaching about living his life in the laboratory of illness. He wanted to share his journey (and eventually his teachings about end of life) publicly. In honor of his birthday today, it is a privilege to share part of a tribute by one of his teachers, Melila Hellner-Eshed.
I want to speak words of love and loss about our friend and teacher Rabbi Steve Sager, zichro livracha, I got to know Steve through all the many summers when he attended and was a very active participant at the rabbis’ summer programs at the Hartman Institute in Israel. At the end of the morning sessions we would talk about the texts, our ideas, and the poems I chose to teach. And then he would show me the translations he made to them. He was a wonderful translator of poetry which demands such an attentive soul and ear and a love for both Hebrew and English and the ground language from which all poets of all languages quarry their words. I loved his translations and would turn to him once in while with a poem that I felt needed to be translated into English yet needed his special poetic touch.
I had also the delightful honor of co-leading with Steve at several clergy retreats in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. I loved the way he would frame each theme and session. It was all about life, our Torah, our tradition, poetry and our own writings. The themes included leave taking from this world, Kriah/tearing in avelut/mourning, and about what zecher livracha, being of blessed memory could mean to us. I feel all this work was like a long deep and rich preparation for his own leave taking from the world. As a great teacher and Rabbi, Steve taught till the end of his life mamash!
I wish to bring here Steve’s beautiful translation of a poem by Yehuda Amichai. Steve wrote about it and then wrote his own poem-prayer in conversation with it. The poem is called ‘God is Steps’. Here are Steve’s words:
God is steps, declared Yehuda Amichai. Such an outright assertion about God was unusual for the great Israeli poet. He [Amichai] was fond of similes that invited listeners closer to the mystery without violating the distance that mystery needs. Among his similes, Amichai likened God to a magician, to a window, to a door, to bird footprints on the sand, to a tour guide, and to the scent of perfume that lingers after its wearer has passed by.
When the poet declared, God is steps, he stepped outside of his poet-realm of simile and became a theologian making a direct statement about the nature of God in the world. He was clear that he did not invent the name. Rather, he discovered it [in the story of Jacob’s dream]…Amichai was certain that the heart of Jacob’s dream was not the angels, but the steps:
God is steps that ascend
to a place that no longer exists, or that doesn’t exist yet
the steps are my faith, the steps are my disappointment
Jacob our father knew this in his dream
the angels only decorated the steps of the staircase
like a fir tree decorated for Christmas
and The Song of the Steps is a song of praise
to God who is the steps.
And Steve continues…
From the patriarch’s dream-image and the poet’s wakeful imagining, Steps became a name of God; a name that formed slowly, in almost geologic time, beginning when Jacob’s dream surrendered its elemental richness from above, drop by drop, until Steps arose from the earth—a stalagmite staircase; growing, blooming rock the living truth of which attracted the poet…The poet has dreamed his way into Jacob’s dream and made his meaning available to all who still dream themselves into it.
I [says Steve, who takes the bold next step] have taken the name Steps into the laboratory of my life in order to discover what personal insights and opportunities it affords me. I have learned to call God Steps when fear—heavy and broad—must be carried and crossed. Steps is the name that I call when my soul insists on movement, but I don’t know whether onward will be upward or downward. Mindful of Steps, blessed be they, my stride becomes less hurried, less entitled.
Steps, is the God in whose presence I walk, knowing that God who is Steps does not determine my direction or destination. Steps is the God who is ever-present, but not all knowing. Steps is the God who is with me, whether I am a purposeful pilgrim or a foot-loose wanderer; always giving and gaining ground, but making no comment.
Such is the soil—the soul—in which the name, Steps, takes root and flourishes for me. And here is some evidence from my own inner prayer book of how I pray it:
O, Steps! Ground of all journeys!
You are forever beneath my rising and my falling.
You are the level and the slope testing my inclinations
towards faith, towards disappointment.
Another step and I meet you anew.
You are the ground of purpose; mine to determine.
You are my way, whether wandering or pilgrimage.
You are here and horizon; destination long gone or as yet unmade.
Where I meet You is arrival and departure.
I, among the travelers. You, as ancient and present as the journey.
The Steps, blessed be they, assure me—comfort me—that onward is the well-met, grace-filled way. This is a truth as old as the journey.
May Steve’s memory be a deep and rich blessing. May his soul be bundled up in the fragrant bundle of life.
תהא נשמתך צרורה בצרור החיים