Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso
One of the bestselling authors in the world of spiritual books for children that are nonsectarian, written for people of all faiths, Rabbi Sasso has also just published her first book for adults, God’s Echo: Exploring Scripture with Midrash. She is an outspoken advocate for discovering new ways to talk meaningfully about spiritual things.
She and her husband, Dennis C. Sasso, also a rabbi, co-lead a synagogue in Indianapolis. She travels widely giving talks to groups of all kinds…. She’s also a fairly new grandmother.
EXPLOREFAITH: You have been writing spiritual books for children for almost 20 years now, and they have sold more than a quarter of a million copies. That’s a lot of success. But I wonder, have your grandchildren taught you any new insights into how to cultivate the spirituality of children?
SANDY EISENBERG SASSO: Grandchildren are an incredible gift. My husband and I are blessed with two beautiful grandsons—18 months and 5 months. I always believed that children were born with an innate spirituality and it was our responsibility as the adults who care for them to help give them the language to express that spirit. But it wasn’t until I looked into the eyes of my grandsons that I saw the sacred light that I believe harks back to the light of the very first day of creation. Watching them grow, delighting in each smile and laugh, continues to teach me about the life of the spirit.
are teaching me every day about celebrating the wonder of small things. Daily
they ask me to stop long enough to notice what in my busy routine I too often
overlook. I had forgotten
that cultivating the life of the spirit had to do with jumping in rain puddles,
discovering oddly shaped rocks and smelling flowers, but it does.
EXPLOREFAITH: Who is easier to reach, spiritually, a child or an adult? Are children or adults more able to open up to the spiritual in their lives?
SANDY EISENBERG SASSO: Often adults have set up barriers to faith. They may have learned something in childhood about God that they now reject. Sometimes when adults discover that I am a rabbi they feel compelled to tell me that they no longer believe in God. I ask them to tell me about the God they no longer believe in. Often I can say—‘The God you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in either.’ At some point in their lives they stopped talking about what it is they do believe in. They’ve grown, changed, but they haven’t let their faith grow and change with them.
Children are much
more open to a conversation about matters of the spirit. They want to talk about
the big questions, the unfairness of life, its meaning and purpose. They are not
afraid of mystery, of questions that have no single answers, until we make them
afraid. In taking the hand of a child on my own faith journey I have learned
about what it is I believe.
EXPLOREFAITH: Are there two or three things that parents can do to help their children become more spiritually sensitive?
SANDY EISENBERG SASSO: Nurture your own spiritual life. To encourage your children’s spiritual imagination, you have to be able to draw on your own spirituality. Encourage a conversation about faith. Let your children know you are interested in talking about life’s big questions. Belong to a community where people live out stories of faith. Children need not only coaches for soccer; they need spiritual mentors for life. They need to see other people who live a life of generosity and grace, courage and caring. They need to see you living out your faith when you think no one else is looking.
EXPLOREFAITH: Do you feel called to your work as a writer, as a rabbi?
SANDY EISENBERG SASSO: I remember the first time I decided I wanted to become a rabbi. It was as though something inside me was pulling and pushing me somewhere, you might say, calling me to a certain place. And it didn’t matter that there were no women rabbis at the time and that there were people who tried to convince me that my decision was wrong. It wasn’t that I didn’t have my doubts, but something kept telling me what I was doing was the right decision for me.
I have that same feeling when a story idea takes hold of me. The story won’t let go, and if I want to sleep at all at night, I must begin to write it down. It is as though the story has its own life and demands to be told, and it doesn’t really care if you think that you don’t have the time. You need to make the time.
EXPLOREFAITH: Growing up
in a Jewish home, at the time you did, it couldn’t have been a natural decision
for a girl to become a rabbi, right? How did you come to that decision? What did
your family think of it?
SANDY EISENBERG SASSO: I first decided to become a rabbi when I was 16 years old. There were no women rabbis at the time. However, I loved the synagogue where I grew up. I admired the rabbis of my congregation. I wanted in some way to communicate my passion for Jewish study and living to others. It just seemed natural for me to pursue the rabbinate.
Not everyone agreed with my decision. My family was very supportive, but the community at large was doubtful. I recall receiving a letter from a woman who had learned of my decision to become a rabbi. She wrote that while she usually wished people success in their careers, in my case, she wouldn’t. In fact, she hoped that I would change my mind for my own sake, and Judaism’s sake.
I didn’t change my
mind. Judaism, like other religious traditions, changed their minds
instead. Over three decades since I was ordained as a rabbi, 50 percent of the
students in non-Orthodox seminaries are women.
EXPLOREFAITH: Let’s turn to your new book that introduces the tradition of midrash, God’s Echo. I would imagine that not only Jews are interested in midrash; it probably relates to Christian understandings of scripture and meaning, too.
SANDY EISENBERG SASSO: I first started talking about midrash because so many of my children’s books were based on traditional midrashim. Every time I mentioned this rabbinic process of interpreting Scripture, people were intrigued. They wanted to know more. Midrash opened a new window into the Bible. It helped people understand not only what the biblical narrative might have meant to their ancestors, but what it continues to mean to them. They could talk with Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, ask questions of them and of God. They could read their own life stories back into the sacred text.
EXPLOREFAITH: Is the New Testament itself, sort of a
SANDY EISENBERG SASSO: Jews read the Hebrew Scripture (TaNaKh) through the eyes of the rabbis. In the first centuries of the Common Era, the rabbis interpreted the TaNaKh. That interpretation grew and eventually became the Talmud and Midrash.
Christians read the Hebrew Scripture through the New Testament, which is the way in which the church interpreted that scripture. The writers of the New Testament read their Christ-centered understanding of the sacred word into the biblical narrative. I would call that Christian midrash.
EXPLOREFAITH: Would you
mind telling us how you nourish your spiritual life daily, weekly,
SANDY EISENBERG SASSO: Every week there is Sabbath. Throughout the year there are holy days that punctuate the calendar. Ceremonies and rituals run through the Jewish days and weeks. Sometimes I go through the motions, reciting prayers, leading worship, performing rituals without thinking. My mind wanders, preoccupied with responsibilities and obligations. It doesn’t feel all that spiritual.
But then it happens, not as frequently as I would like, but it does happen, that the gestures and the words carry me to a deeper place. I am not always ready to go to that place, but when I am, the words and rituals are there to carry me.
Sometimes it is neither traditional prayer nor ritual that nourishes my spirit. It is the unexpected encounter with others, the delight of reading a good book, the hard work of my writing that helps sustain my spirit.
EXPLOREFAITH: What about
in the season of Hanukkah? What sort of traditions did you keep when your own
kids were still living at home? And then, how does the season change for you and
your husband, Dennis, as empty-nesters?
SANDY EISENBERG SASSO: I recall how we lit the Hanukkah menorah when we were kids. My brother and I would argue about who would be privileged to strike the match and light the candles in the silver menorah that sat on the window ledge in our kitchen. Once the candles were lit, the prayers said and songs sung, we would play a game that we called the contest of the candles. My brother and I would each choose the candle we thought would burn the longest. While the candles flickered, we’d dine on my mother’s potato pancakes, latkes, smothered in sweet applesauce. We’d opened gifts and play dreidel.
When our children were young, we kept the same traditions—lit candles, sang songs, played dreidel, unwrapped gifts, ate latkes. With the rest of our family far from us, we invited friends to celebrate. Just like my brother and I, our son and daughter tried to guess which candle on the menorah would last the longest.
When the children
left home, we joined with friends to celebrate the festival. However, without
the arguments over who would get to strike the first match, without the contest
of the candles, something felt like it was missing. Sometimes our grown children
would recite the candle blessings together with us over the telephone. Now we do
it over the computer with a web cam!
We are fortunate to have our daughter, son-in-law and grandson living nearby. We look forward to seeing our grandson’s eyes light up in the glow of the candles for the first time this year.
EXPLOREFAITH: What sorts of things do you read? I always have this image of a rabbi, or a priest for that matter, reading theology all day. That’s probably not accurate.What are a couple of things on your nightstand right now?
SANDY EISENBERG SASSO: Of course, I read non-fiction and have been enjoying a wonderful book by Jennifer Hecht entitled Doubt. But I am also a lover of fiction. It nourishes my soul. One of my favorite books that I read recently was The World to Come by Dara Horn. It is a narrative about immortality and a wonderful story. Right now I am reading the Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon and recently finished a book by Amy Bloom, Always.
EXPLOREFAITH: One of the things I like best about God’s Echo are the stories you tell from the old rabbis—those words of wisdom that seem to be timeless. Does one of them stand out, in particular, that you could share with us?
SANDY EISENBERG SASSO: One of my favorite rabbinic stories is about Nachson ben Amminadab. The rabbis tell us he was the first to cross the Sea of Reeds when the Israelites were escaping Egypt. When the people of Israel encountered the Sea they were afraid. They saw the waters raging before them, the Egyptians with all their chariots and horses behind them. They couldn’t go forward because of the sea, and they couldn’t retreat because of the Egyptian army. The leaders of the tribes debated about the appropriate course of action. At that moment Nachson walked into the waters. It was not until the waters reached his nose that the sea split.
The midrash reminds us not to depend on miracles, that redemption takes risks and human courage and that God’s presence is manifest in those acts of heroism.
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