Last year, I began to receive emails and facebook posts with an attached icon of the superman logo–the big red S in the five-sided border, that announces the presence of the man of steel. Several of my rabbi friends had replaced their regular headshot photos with this Superman graphic, to demonstrate support for our rabbinic colleagues Phyllis and Michael Sommer. The Sommers’ 8-year old son Sam was battling leukemia. Harnessing his strength and superpowers, Sam took on the identity “Superman Sam” as he faced chemotherapy, radiation, relapse, and a bone marrow transplant.
Superman Sam’s parents harnessed their strength and superpowers into a blog, accounting their experiences of medical challenges, family, hope and love, and providing a space for others to share. Superman Sam’s story, and his parents’ beautiful words, have spread beyond their community, to families across the nation. Parents of children with cancer have commented that with the presence of the Sommers’ blog, they feel less alone. Parents of children with other challenges have commented that the Sommers’ hope brings them hope. And readers from all walks of life have commented that the Sommers’ story brings them perspective. With their words, Phyllis and Michael have created a tremendous circle of people, bound by inspiration.
This fall, the Sommers learned that Superman Sam’s bone marrow transplant failed, and there were no more options for treatment. Heartbroken, they continued to share their story as, with the Make a Wish Foundation, they tried to bring Sam moments of joy, even in his discomfort and sorrow. Sam died on December 14th, 2013.
During the final weeks of Sam’s life, his mother Phyllis mentioned to her friend, Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr, that she was considering shaving her head. Rebecca responded: I think other people would do that with you. I think we might be able to get 36 rabbis to shave with you. Let me work on this.
36 is the number of double-chai, double 18–our symbolic number for life. And tradition also teaches that there are 36 lamedvavnicks–the letters lamed and vav add to 36–36 secretly righteous people in every generation. The movement called, “36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave” was born as a part of St. Baldrick’s — a name for a phony hospital, just playing on the word “bald.”
St. Baldricks, facilitates groups who want to shave their heads, to raise funds, and to raise awareness about the fact that only 4% of federal funding for cancer is earmarked for all childhood cancers, and therefore treatment for pediatric cancer is terribly outdated. Rebecca and Phyllis aimed high: they endeavored to get 36 rabbis to shave, and to inspire many more to support their work with donations. They set a goal of $180,000. And they planned the rabbis’ St. Baldrick’s event for the CCAR rabbinic convention in Chicago last week.
Over these past months, readers of the blog, these rabbis’ congregants, and anonymous donors have supported this effort of healing, fundraising, memory and hope. “36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave” quickly surpassed its goals. And by the time of last week’s powerful and mournful and joyful and hopeful, “Shave for the Brave,” over 80 rabbis were shaving! And over a half a million dollars has been raised so far, just through this one shaving group! Because one person said to her friend, “I think other people will do that with you. Let me work on this.”
Many of my friends, including women (who have more guts than I), shaved their heads. Inspired by their devotion I asked some of them about their decision. One friend, Rabbi David Widzer, said it most simply when he replied: “A mitzvah was put before me.”
A mitzvah was put before Phyllis and Michael when they chose to write about their journey. A mitzvah was put before the person who they call SuperMensch, who donated stem cells for the bone marrow transplant. A mitzvah was put before the rabbis who shaved and the volunteers who helped at the Shave for the Brave event. And a mitzvah was put before all of us who have contributed tzedakah.
One of the upcoming Bat Mitzvah students in our own congregation has been battling cancer. For her mitzvah project, she has been making bracelets to sell in order to raise money for the Rodeph Shalom Caring Community– perhaps she feels that a mitzvah has been put before her.
I don’t know the Sommers; but I think I have been deeply compelled by these stories because somehow in the midst of devastating hardship, there are people who continue to look for their mitzvah, even in unlikely places. As they inspire us, they teach us a powerful lesson: to open our eyes to the mitzvah that might be put before us.
This week, we celebrate our Torah’s great story of liberation. With an outstretched arm God brought us forth, redeemed us, saved us, freed us from the slavery of Egypt. And yet, our freedom is not free. God saved us, not to wander alone, but to join together for the purpose of Torah. For a life of mitzvot. Your mitzvah might be shaving your head, and it might not be. Your mitzvah might be publishing your story, and it might not be. Your mitzvah might be donating your marrow or your blood, but it might not be. Only you can know what your mitzvah is.
And so this shabbat let each of us engage on a quest to find our mitzvah.
As we move towards Pesach and rejoice in our freedom, may we also discover our purpose.
May we open our eyes, our hearts, our souls, and say: A mitzvah was put before me.