Hearts broke all over the world in December when we learned of the passing of one little, precious, 8-year-old boy. Just as Jewish tradition teaches us that, if we save one life, it is as if we’ve saved an entire world, we are also aware that losing one life forces us to lose the entire world that would have come from that special soul.
On Saturday morning, December 14, we lost “Superman” Sam Sommer. Sammy, the son of Rabbis Phyllis and Michael Sommer, waged a brave and valiant fight against Acute Myeloid Leukemia for the past year and a half. His parents, both active on social media and both brilliant writers, shared the roller coaster events of his diagnosis, treatment, remission and then relapse, on a blog dedicated to the medical journey. Friends, family and people around the globe followed the story, offered prayers of hope, sent gifts to brighten the little boy’s days and supported his loving family as they struggled to keep Sammy healthy.
And yet, despite everyone’s hope, everyone’s prayers, everyone’s love…. Sammy died. We learned about his final moments from his mother:
The house filled up with family and loved ones. Sam slept quietly through it all.
Our kiddush wine was salty with tears.
The hour grew late… the house emptied out.
Around midnight, the last ones left. I took the first shift and sent Michael up to sleep.
I quietly sat down next to him and very very very softly sang his bedtime prayers.
Shelter us beneath thy wings… guard us from all harmful things.
He was always terribly impatient with me when I would cry during these prayers.
So I made sure not to cry.
Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad…
I whispered in his ear….I love you.
And then I settled down beside him on the couch, my hand on his back. Only a few minutes went by.
His breathing began to change. There were long pauses between the breaths. I caught myself holding my breath and the nurse and I exchanged a momentarily-frightened glance. We turned on the lights, we got Michael from upstairs.
We held our child close.
He took one final breath…
Sam was not alone for a single moment of his life.
He died peacefully and calmly and quietly at 12:33am.
He was not in fear or in pain.
And for that I am eternally grateful.
Those of us who are close to the Sommers, and who have loved and cared for Sammy, cried in our sense of loss, our anger, our confusion, and our sadness. How could this happen? How could God allow this sweet child to suffer so, or to die so young? We want to know where God is during our heartbreak, and why these terrible things happen to wonderful people.
I think that, in the end, we ask the wrong question. The question should not be, “Why did this happen to me?” but rather, “God, I hope you see my suffering and my pain. Can You help me?” Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his important book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, discusses many of these challenges at length. He notes that we can turn to God to be strengthened and comforted. We don’t need to turn to God to be judged or forgiven, or to be rewarded or punished. We can turn to God to help us get through and cope with our loss or crisis. The Bible, after all, repeatedly speaks of God as the special protector of the poor, the widow and the orphan, without raising the question of how it happened that they became poor, widowed or orphaned in the first place. Once we feel that God is with us, comforting us in our time of trouble, Rabbi Kushner implores us to ask an even more important question: “Now that this has happened, what do I do?”
Well, amidst our heartbreak and hopelessness, dozens of rabbis all over the world have decided to do something. In an effort entitled “36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave,” we have joined together with the St. Baldrick’s organization to work towards the eradication of childhood cancers. We will all shave our heads in March, 2014, in an act of solidarity and in the hopes of raising awareness and raising funds. There are now more than 55 of us (at least 11 of which are women) raising money to fight pediatric cancer. We hope that one day, no other little Sammys will die from this terrible disease. Our group began with an initial goal of $180,000, and we have already reached it. Now, we hope to reach $360,000 for this important cause.
Sammy had big dreams, big goals and big hopes. He wanted to be famous, though this was certainly not the way anyone would have wanted it to happen. Let’s allow his story to motivate us, to wake us up and to help us work towards a new day where no other children die of cancer.
If you would like to take part in this special event, please consider donating. I will share stories and pictures from the Shave event in the end of March.
Rabbi Marci Bellows is a spiritual leader at Temple B’nai Torah community in Wantagh, Long Island. A native of Skokie, IL., she earned a B.A. in Psychology from Brandeis University and a Masters in Hebrew Literature in 2003 from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. She was ordained in 2004.