Remembrance of Sam Harel Price

by Rabbi Adina Lewittes

Music and English lyrics by Rabbi Menachem Creditor
Lyrics from Tehillim/Psalms 89:3

Olam Chesed Yibaneh

I will build this world from love . . . yai dai dai
And you must build this world from love . . . yai dai dai
And if we build this world from love . . . yai dai dai
Then G-d will build this world from love . . .  yai dai dai

On Nov 10, 2013, an email arrived in my inbox from Sam Price asking about shadowing me for a month to learn about the life of a rabbi, a life Sam thought about pursuing for herself. The Sam I met and spent a month with in January 2014 and built a friendship with over the next two years was bright and inquisitive, thoughtful and earnest; someone who could envision the future and her place in it.

She came into my life and the life of my community, Sha’ar Communities, just as we were embarking on a Mother-Daughter Spa Shabbat where mothers and daughters spent two days together immersed in soulful reflection, bodily pampering, and personal renewal. Sam was moved by our initiative and immediately asked me about planning a possible father/son ski trip, combining some fun skiing with learning about fathers and sons in the Torah and in Jewish tradition. She could see the potential of Judaism to heal and strengthen the most foundational of relationships that too often become challenged in our complex, complicated world. And she wanted to help keep them central and healthy.

Sam made this clear in a piece she wrote for our community newsletter on Tu B’Shvat in January 2014:

“Tu B'Shevat takes place on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat and celebrates the beginning of the life cycle of trees. On Tu B'Shevat it is customary to eat several foods that grow on trees traditionally found in the land of Israel. These foods include olives, grapes, pomegranates, figs and dates.

When celebrating Tu B’Shevat it is important to look inward and see how this holiday can help us appreciate the world around us. As trees begin to grow, their roots take hold in the soil and provide the trees with nutrients in order to survive. In our daily lives, we have our own roots in the form of family, friends, tradition, learning and prayer. Without these essential parts of our lives, each one of us would wither and become weak. Even though the roots are underground and invisible to the naked eye, they are vital for survival.

Therefore, on the holiday of Tu B’Shevat it is important to not only celebrate nature but also to take time to appreciate the roots we have in our lives and consider where we would be without them. On this day, we should look around and thank those who are so deeply rooted in our lives.

In addition to thanking those who impact our lives, we should also take this time to learn how trees are so vital to humanity, especially during a time when the environment is in constant danger. In the story of creation, G-d told Adam, "I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth and every tree that has seed bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food" (Genesis 1.29). Here, G-d does not want us to merely take anything we want, but to look after the beautiful world that G-d bestowed onto us.”

Even though the roots are underground and invisible to the naked eye, they are vital for survival. Sam knew better than any of us that the sources of our strength, our integrity, and our dignity, aren’t those we can see externally in one another, aren’t manifest in our clothes, our bodies or our gender, but in our internal, universal roots of love, compassion, humility and generosity—roots that ought to bind different generations, different cultures, different religions, different nations, and of course, people of different identities. Take away or diminish those roots, and the tree, the Torah’s symbol of a human being—adam eytz hasadeh hu/for a human is a tree of the field—will fall.

Sam was a world of chesed, of lovingkindness, unto herself.

Sam dreamed of creating a Judaism that is open and inclusive, one that embraces those who feel marginalized or excluded from community. As she once wrote to me:

I really want to have a place where I can talk and meet with Jews in a space where not one feels left out or intimidated. It is because of this that I want to create a nondenominational organization or programs that offer alternative Jewish methods of prayer, meditation, studying, you name it! My goal is to not force Jews on campus to be more religious, but to create a space where Jews can get together and have a meaningful experience regardless of how devout they are, or their political opinions. I was wondering if you had any advice on this matter, or any books/forms of prayer I should research. (April 30,2014)

All Sam wanted to do, and at the heart of all she did, was to build a world from love.

From time to time, Sam would email me with the questions and ideas that were animating her soul and fueling her passion, such as this one from April 1, 2015:

Long time no talk! How have you been? I have some burning questions about Judaism that I was wondering if you could give some insight on. This may not be the most coherent paragraph, but my thoughts are still very jumbled. I have been reading a lot of Buber, Rosenzwieg, Turner and Eliade. When I read Turner, I see his description of pilgrimages being liminal and subsequently forming moments of harmonious equality as having a useful function. By experiencing something Divine, religious or moving as a group, we can become closer and break down social barriers and inequality (in theory). Although having a shared religious moment with someone of a different religion is contradictory, this collective experience can still apply to the Jewish community, or a group of Jews. It is true that individual revelation would then play into this larger social context, but I still find the notion of Judaism striving towards revelation problematic. If we practice Judaism to receive a revelation or to become closer to G-d, all acts of Tikun Olam, solidarity work, and community bonding becomes second to the selfish act of self revelation. Some argue that by understanding the self, one understands the world, but I do not buy into that argument. Why turn to G-d to become closer to one another when we can initially turn to each other? I guess the large question I am struggling with is as follows: How does self revelation in Judaism play into the context of Social Justice, and to put it biblically, Loving thy neighbor. For me, following Jewish practice because it G-d's word and G-d knows best does not really cut it for me. Can you possibly give me some help in wrestling with these concepts?

Why turn to G-d to become closer to one another when we can just turn to each other? Without realizing it, Sam asked the same question our tradition teaches G-d asked as well. On Yom Kippur morning we read the words of G-d as relayed by Isaiah to those who think that observing Jewish ritual such as fasting on Yom Kippur is the essence of what the holy One wants of us:

"Is this the fast I want?
A day for people to starve their bodies?
Do I want you to bow your heads like the reeds,
to mortify your bodies
with coarse cloth and ashes?
You call that a fast, a day
when Adonai will look upon you with favor?"
This is the fast I want:
unlock the chains of wickedness,
untie the knots of servitude.
Let the oppressed go free,
their bonds broken.
Share your bread with the hungry,
and welcome the homeless into your home. When you see the naked, clothe them.
All people are your kin:
do not ignore them."

Sam knew instinctively that being close to G-d wasn’t the way to getting close to one another. She knew that staying close to one another was the surest path to coming close to the Divine.

But Isaiah continued:

"Then you will shine like the dawn,
and healing will rise up within you.
Your righteousness will vindicate you;
the presence of G-d will guard your safety.
Then, when you call, Adonai will answer.
When you cry out
G-d will say, 'Here I am.'"

Sam fulfilled her side of the prophecy: she helped those who were suffering find their way to freedom, she fed the hungry, sheltered the homeless, clothed the naked—and not just people’s bodies, but through her tireless activism, she touched, protected and healed people’s souls. And indeed her light shone, illuminating hope and possibility for so many others.

But the prophecy failed Sam and I sit here as angry as I am bereft. Yes, Sam was blessed with friends and family who embraced, supported, and most importantly, respected her. But when she called for the same from the universe, the world’s response of love and acceptance wasn’t loud enough. Her righteousness was not vindicated, and her healing did not rise up. Now it is we, her family and friends, who are charged with vindicating her righteousness and bringing her healing to those who still crying out in pain. It is we who are charged with raising the volume on the world’s response of compassion, with advocating for and growing a celebration of life’s beautiful diversity.

As Sam lay dying last Wednesday night, I was surrounded by 50 teens—LGBTQ Jewish teens and their friends and allies at our 3rd annual Purim Unmasquerade Ball, an event Sam and I started together to provide LGBTQ teens a space to shed the masks and disguises they too often feel pressured to wear. Even as she lay far away from us, Sam’s spirit was all over that party: her artwork filled the publicity posters that went out throughout northern NJ, the vocabulary of sexual and gender diversity she compiled was taped up on the wall for all to learn from, and her courage and passion were pulsing through all these kids dancing, singing, laughing and unselfconsciously celebrating a Jewish world of sexual and gender diversity. It was a moment of tragic irony like none other I have ever known, one that filled me with dread and pride at one and the same moment: As Sam’s life was ending, she was surely saving another’s. As Sam’s world of chesed and love was crumbling, she was building one for others, forcing the hand of G-d as it were, as the song says:

I will build this world from love
And you must build this world from love
And if we build this world from love
Then G-d will build this world from love

Purim is often compared to Passover. Not only because they appear close together on the calendar, but because of a deeper insight, one Sam lived powerfully in her short life. Purim is the holiday of divine hiddenness: there’s no mention of the Divine in the Book of Esther, no overt miracles, just two human beings—Mordecai and Esther—who muster the strength and courage to assert themselves and their Jewish identity in order to generate the presence of G-dliness and purpose that change the course of Jewish history. It is a story of human fulfillment that moves from the concealment of identity to the revelation of identity.

By contrast, the Passover story is a narrative of overt, explicit divine miracles and divine salvation: the plagues, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, the splitting of the sea, the liberation.

And yet, our tradition tells us that in the time to come, when the world has been redeemed, we will no longer have the need to observe festivals like Passover; they will all become null and void. But the holiday of Purim will remain in observance forever.

Why would the grand holiday of Passover with its dramatic storyline of divine salvation and its compelling rituals become null and void while the relatively minor story of Esther with no grand divine message or rituals remains on our calendars for eternity?

One of the most powerful responses I have ever encountered comes from the teachings of Rav Yitzchak Hutner. He explained that the absence of G-d or any explicit divine miracles in the Esther story is to be seen less as an omission of G-d and more as the Torah’s invitation to us as human beings to assume the primary responsibility for generating the presence of G-dliness and holiness in our world, especially in times of darkness and need, times when divine silence fills us with anxiety.

Rav Hutner wrote:

Imagine two people are given the job of recognizing people at night. The first used a flashlight so that [s]he could see the faces of the people and recognize them. The second did not have a flashlight, and therefore had to teach [her]himself to recognize people’s voices.

As to which one had a greater level of clarity—the first was superior to the second, since seeing a person’s face is a clearer way of recognizing someone than hearing [her]his voice.

On the other hand, the second person has an advantage over the first, in having developed the new skill of recognizing voices, which the first one has not. In the morning, when the sun rises, the first one will turn off [her]his flashlight, for it is of no use during the day. [S]He will have gained nothing during the night that could help [her]him during the day. The second one, however, will always be able to use the new skill of recognizing voices, which [s]he developed in the dark, even during the day. Passover is the story that teaches us to seek and find the Divine in ourselves, in others, in human struggle and achievement and in nature by using the obvious flashlights we have: the actions and cries of those who are in need and the grand gestures of strength, charity and kindness by those who have.

The darkness or silence of Purim, however, teaches us that redemption must first and foremost come by listening for the voices that have no sound, the voices drowned out and eclipsed by those louder, more mainstream, more powerful. Purim teaches us that the light of another soul isn’t measured by its external power to illuminate but from its radiant source deep, deep within. Purim teaches us to pay attention to the small, unnoticed acts of compassion that change the course of human life, that reorder someone’s universe. Purim teaches us not to be anxious or afraid of the dark, but to illuminate it with acts of courage and chesed, lovingkindness. And it teaches us to come to know another through this silent, inner love. This is Sam’s Torah. This is the revelation of which she spoke in her email to me.

Once we master that, we can make our way to Passover and exult in the manifest radiance of its miracles. But what will sustain us forever, through periods of blessing and gloom, is the discovery of our own capacity to generate divine light. This is Sam’s eternal legacy, her immortality, intertwined as it is forever with Purim, the eternal holiday of inner light on which she died. And this is the task Sam leaves us with: a rekindling of our own luminescence, one that scatters the shadows, calms our fears, and illuminates our way, and everyone’s way, to freedom.

Having been privileged to mentor Sam, I’m heartbroken not because I won’t have any more opportunities to teach her, but because I won’t have any more opportunities to learn from her. Sam wanted to be a rabbi, and a rabbi she truly became. A rabbi is in essence a teacher: a teacher of meaning, of faith, of holiness, of purpose. Sam was my rabbi; she was our rabbi. I will forever be inspired by her—her courage, her selflessness, her primal sense of right and wrong, her complicated life which was based on her uncomplicated understanding of love, and her relentless building of a world of love, an olam chesed, that may not have been ready for her but will be forever changed by her.

Yehi zichra baruch. May Sam’s memory be for a blessing.

Olam Chesed Yibaneh.