Jessica Sacks

I wasn’t sure whether to make a hesped for Daniel; in fact, until a couple of days ago I’d decided that I wouldn’t. This is partly because I can’t possibly reduce the way I feel about my brother to words, and partly because Daniel and I were so completely different from one another that I don’t know if I can say anything about him that he would agree with or identify with in any way.  But of course I only can commemorate him in my own way, and so I have taken courage from Eliot’s piece of gemara on Thursday, and I shall say a little about what Daniel has meant to me over the years of my growing up, and then bring a small piece of aggadeta, which is what I study.

My mother tells me that before I could crawl I used to wriggle on my stomach towards the door whenever I heard Daniel come in.  I have always had this wordless love for my brother, which never lessened, even when he was beating me up and always winning.

On the evening when I heard about his death I thought back to Daniel’s birthday cards. Daniel was unique in our family in that his birthday cards would always arrive on time.  (I think I still owe him a birthday present from two years ago.)  His card would always come on the morning of my birthday; I would open it up; the right-hand side, where most people write the message, would be blank, and on the left-hand side, in the top left-hand corner, in tiny, neatly aligned handwriting, would be the following message:

Dear Jessica,
Happy Birthday,
Best Wishes,

This was the most predictable event in my year for about a decade; Daniel was never a big one for change.  And yet, (and with apologies to anyone else here who has ever sent me a birthday card: I was very happy to get it) this card always meant more to me than any other card I would get: I hope that in the next few minutes I can explain a little of why that was.  The card itself would be different each year; the first several were Wallace and Gromit cards, and afterwards they would be picked with the same gentle, innocent sense of humour which was always exactly aligned with my own.  Looking back I was really impressed with Daniel’s perceptiveness, enabling him always to pick precisely the right birthday card.  Then I realized that it was not just that.  Daniel was extremely perceptive, but he could match my sense of humour because it was his sense of humour: it came from him, along with many other things that are integral to who I am, from many of my values and ways of assessing people, to my messy handwriting and the assumption that tea and coffee are what the grown-ups drink, and therefore not for me.

Daniel played a big part in my upbringing, and took this responsibility very seriously – particularly, it has to be said, the disciplinary role; but certainly not only.  He taught me many things, and his words of encouragement and affection always meant more to me than anything anyone else could say, partly because he said so little, and always meant what he said, and partly because I knew that he had an eye for reality unlike anyone else’s I know; his good word really was worth having.

I have a very early memory – I’m not sure whether I remember this or only remember remembering it – of being in my cot one morning, when I was about two.  My parents were still asleep, and I wanted to get out.  Daniel went downstairs, took the cushions off the big brown chair and dragged them back up the stairs, hung them over the side of the cot as a bridge and helped me to climb out. I guess this is what elder siblings do for their younger siblings – teach them to climb when there isn’t an adult there to lift them – and this is what Daniel did for me.

Obviously there was a dark side to Daniel’s sense of reality.  This seems a kitch memory to bring to a hesped, but I remember, at the age of three or four, sitting on the kitchen floor of the house we lived in then, hearing my father playing the Elton John song ‘Daniel’.  It had been explained to me that this was a song about someone else who also has a big brother called Daniel, and I remember hearing it and crying almost uncontrollably, and keeping my tears secret (I told my father about this last week, and yes, I had managed to keep it secret), because I think somehow I knew, even then, that my brother-Daniel also was older than me, saw more than me, felt pain that he would never be able to explain to me, and that one day he would go away from me and I wouldn’t be able to follow.

Another early memory, which probably is a second-hand one, is of sitting with Daniel on the sofa being told the story of Daniel in the Lions’ Den. When I heard the title I turned very angrily to my mother, who was telling the story, and said ‘That’s not fair!  Why Daniel in the Lions’ Den? Why not Daniel-and-Jessica in the Lion’s Den?’ I didn’t understand then how stories work; I had it explained to me. And I really wish that it could have been Daniel and Jessica in the Lions’ Den.  But it couldn’t; it was always just Daniel, in the Lions’ Den, alone.

Of course, of course, there were happy times, and the pleasure of seeing Daniel happy far outweighed the pain of seeing him sad. He had an incredible sense of humour, and also of human kindness and of playfulness. Speaking as someone with absolutely no natural interest in athletics, some of the happiest hours of my life have been spent lying on my stomach on the carpet, watching the Olympics with my dad and my older brother. In the immaculate Hebrew phrasing of my small cousin Chessed, who never knowingly met Daniel but who heard about him from her teenage sisters, whom Daniel gallantly took around Brent Cross on their first trip to England last year, Daniel was, be’emet, ‘cool’. 

I’m now going to bring a small piece of aggadic commentary which has been very meaningful to me in the past.  It’s a comment on the Biblical narrative of Moses’ death. At the end of the book of Deuteronomy, having led the people of Israel to the very border of the Promised Land, Moses knows that he cannot go in, and that therefore the time has come for him to die.  He climbs a mountain, alone, and dies there. God buries him, and no man knows his burial place to this day. This is the story as it is told in the Biblical text; on that, Rabbi Chama bar Chanina, who lived in the third century, asks:

Why was the grave of Moshe hidden from the eyes of flesh and blood?
Because it was revealed and known before God
that one day the Temple would be destroyed,
and Israel would be exiled from their land.
And perhaps, on that day,
they would come to Moshe’s grave,
and they would stand there, weeping,
and they would say, ‘Moshe, our teacher,
stand up and pray for us.’
And Moshe would stand up,
and cancel the decree…        

(Ein Ya’acov/Sefer HaAgaddah–free translation)

This story is one of the reasons I decided a couple of years ago to study Aggaddic literature. It also marks out one of the differences between Daniel and me.  One of the reasons I like it is because it expresses, in very few, poignant words, a certain complexity which comes up in other midrashim as well. On the one hand it shows a very sharp awareness of the pain of exile; the sense of being far from home, of living in a state of complete uncertainty and undefined meaning, and of being entirely alone – even if you are surrounded by loving and loved fellow-exiles, in another sense being completely alone, because you have no access to the God who put you in this situation, and who seems distant and completely inscrutable to you.  Daniel would never have put anything in these terms, but he knew this feeling better than I do.  On the other hand the midrash expresses something which is best expressed in stories: the sense that the answer is out there, right now, if only we could see it; that God does love us and that if only we could find the place to tap into it He could not bear to see us suffer any more; that like magic, suddenly, everything would make sense and we could go back home.

In the days when I would be read bed-time stories, Daniel would be doing his bed-time logic-puzzle with our Dad. He was never as much into stories as I was.  Daniel could never take lies, he could never take silly fantasies, he could never take fluff or make comforting assumptions. He could face reality with a courage that few people have, but he could never take a leap of faith, or really accept that people loved him, which they did.  I guess that this is one way to understand the terrible paradox of Daniel, who could be so staggeringly, frighteningly right about so many things, and yet so completely, completely wrong about himself.

Over the last week I’ve seen myself and other people desperately searching for the place where Daniel was when he died; as if, if only we could find that place, and understand it, we could make some contact with him, and somehow, perhaps, we could find some peace, things could be all right, and we could go back home.  I guess we can’t do that.

I suppose Rabbi Chama bar Chanina’s message is that, if we were taken out of Egypt and taken into Israel, and then taken out again, this time round it won’t be so easy.  We can’t go for help to our dead leader, but must search out the teachings he left when he was alive, and through them, stumble back home the hard way. I don’t really know how to end this hesped; this is probably the first and last time Daniel will be compared to Moshe rabbeinu. But I know that we are going to carry on: me and my parents and all Daniel’s friends, hopefully; we will carry on, and do our things, and be happy, and love, and be loved, and carry on across the border that Daniel decided he couldn’t/didn’t want to/couldn’t be bothered to/didn’t deserve to cross.  It won’t be easy. Speaking for myself, I will never forget that it was Daniel – not only him, but very significantly him – who brought me this far.

His memory will always be for blessing.

Jessica Sacks, 13th November 2005