By Rabbi Daniel Alexander, who is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville, VA, where he continues to write and teach and serve as a Spiritual Director (read more here). Dan and Steve met in Jerusalem while studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute in 1992. Since then, they became hevruta and sipped scotch together most summers on many balconies and rooftops in Jerusalem and while sitting in the rocking chairs at Wildacres Retreat in NC.
The new year of 5783 has begun, with new possibilities – and with it – the beckoning, the invitation to pause and engage in introspection, to turn inward and attend to the first question posed by the Creator of the Universe to the first human, “where are you?”
As I try to get a grip on myself, striving for the inner balance required in order to engage in the work of teshuvah this year, to respond to that question, I am struck by the dizzying nature of some contrasting claims on my attention. I find myself beset by sharply contradictory moods, moods reflecting the polarizing experiences in my life during the past year. The poet Yehuda Amichai describes this sort of instability in his poem, A Man in His Life (read entire poem here):
…He will die as figs die in autumn,
Shriveled and full of himself and sweet,
the leaves growing dry on the ground,
the bare branches pointing to the place
where there’s time for everything.
A prose reduction of the poem might say: it is hard to be a person. Or more expansively: because of life’s finitude, a person must accommodate life’s contrasting stimuli at each moment. With our intricate but limited wiring, all under warranty of uncertain length, if at all, life often makes it hard to get a grip.
During the past year, I experienced many joys. By contrast, I also accompanied a dear friend and spiritual companion, Rabbi Steven Sager, zichrono livracha, during his final days of life.
Back in the spring of 2020, during the now all-too-familiar pandemic, I received the draft of an essay from my friend, Steve. It read, “Mortality is—literally—in the air, and we rabbis are especially attentive because our vocation is bound up with last and lasting things.”
What my dear friend omitted from the essay was any mention of the diagnosis of stage four pancreatic cancer he had received concurrently with the news all of us were absorbing about the pandemic. Indeed, mortality was in the air and for him an increasingly snug fit – to use a phrase he would come to apply to himself.
The awareness of mortality’s snug fit might be a universal lesson of the pandemic, but, for sure, the dire prognosis concentrated my friend Steve’s awareness of the fast-approaching, ultimate threshold and his ever more limited options for delaying the advance. He became hyper-aware of the poet’s observation that a person indeed does not have time to have time for everything.
Although the diagnosis constituted a distinctly new stage for my friend, in a certain sense, the two years from diagnosis to death simply afforded him yet another series of occasions to apply the qualities he had always embodied in his Torah-infused life. These included curiosity, presence, imagination, and also the twin notions that 1) we humans are in and of ourselves sacred texts as much as the received sacred lore found in books, and that 2) the enterprise of Judaism is never rooted in a fixed set of rules or values but rather in a conversation that takes place both within a generation and across generations. Thus, I had the awesome privilege of observing Steve exemplifying these qualities and embodying these principles during his final months.
During the two-year journey following the diagnosis and despite the imposition of chemo treatments and pills, depleted physical stamina, and other assaults to his body, Steve continued to utilize the available alert hours of each day to read and write and teach, and to keep up with the young rabbis he mentored and with the spiritual companions in his circle, and with his family.
As the fit of mortality grew ever more snug, as the quality of available time became ever more precious, I observed Steve grow ever more intensely present in the present, ever more aware of things last and lasting.
This past March, I made my final pilgrimage to Durham while Steve was still alive. He was still studying and teaching, mostly passages pertaining to aging and sickness and dying and mourning, Torah reinforcing his curiosity about his current reality and his determination to occupy that reality with full presence. I found my friend physically diminished but not morbid, not gloomy just intensely curious, playful but serious, regretful only when his need for rest robbed him of time for study and full mental clarity.
During that visit, Steve shared with me the gist of what would be his final public sessions of teaching. I saw him weave midrash and dream and reflection, much as he had often done throughout his rabbinic career. In the past, Steve had often accompanied congregants through that “valley of the shadow of death,” and had, in the process, become familiar with the landscape of sickness and dying and death and grieving. But back then, he now reflected, he had been like a docent in a museum, providing commentary and guidance on the major works of art on the wall. Now, Steve taught, he had become at once both the artwork and the docent, the text and the teacher.
Steve’s final public teaching epitomized a Torah as lived experience and a lived experience as sacred text. In that teaching, he inquired of the following Talmudic passage:
Until Abraham, there was no aging …. [Thus,] Abraham came and prayed for mercy, and [as a result] aging was at last noticeable….
Until Jacob, there was no illness leading up to death; rather, one would die suddenly. Jacob came and prayed for mercy, and illness was brought to the world, allowing one to prepare for one’s death…. (Baba Metziah 87a)
During his musing on this Talmudic passage, Steve read himself into the conversation it implies; that is, he read the text of his life into the rabbinic ascriptions about Abraham as the instigator of wrinkles and muscle aches and Jacob as the instigator of illness.
He described a dream in which he was in synagogue as the magbiah, the one lifting the Torah high into the air, something I’m sure he was then far too weak to do when not dreaming. As Steve dreamed himself raising up the Torah high above his head, he looked up and saw his own arms, the skin blotchy and loose as, in fact, it had become from the ravages of disease and treatments. Those arms had once propelled him to awards as a champion swimmer. And then the words sung in unison by the congregation, “V’zot HaTorah/This is the Torah that Moses presented to the children of Israel” now reverberated in the dream, referring both to the uplifted Torah scroll and to the arms that held it aloft.
E. M. Forster once wrote, “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” What a privilege it was to accompany my friend, Steve, as he let go of the life he had planned and leaned into the life waiting for him.
The new year now upon us may well include much that we too have not planned, perhaps a new awareness of mortality’s snug fit, or a new concern for last and lasting things. May we each learn to receive with gratitude the days allotted to us as gifts. And may we learn to traverse the uneven terrain of our gifted lives with the skill of presence, with imagination, with empowerment enough to regard ourselves as sacred texts, and with a reenergized commitment to engage in the conversation that is a life infused by Torah.