Prof. Nahum M. Sarna, z"l
March 27, 1923-June 23, 2005
Harav Prof. Nahum Sarna – Abba, and we only called him Abba - was a very nice man. Always the proper English gentleman. He was always kind and considerate, the unassuming and modest scholar.
One of my earliest recollections is that the Nursery School teacher asked each member of the class what Father did for a living. The answer, uniformly, was that “my father makes money.” When it came my turn, I was under no illusions. “My father does nothing,” I said. “He studies.” Abba had a passion for learning, as well as for teaching. Even as a small child, he taught me Hebrew by reading me the stories of Chachmei Chelm, “The Wise Men of Chelm” in Hebrew. I still remember them. Each story had as its punch line, “Nas’u venatnu, nimnu vegamru, vehechelitu…”. “They debated it back and forth, and they decided… .” And it was always a foolish decision. Starting from when I was eight, every day, and until I was well into High School, Abba studied Mishna with me. He first explained the mishnayot, and then helped me to commit them to memory, at the rate of one perek (chapter) a week. For which he paid me. This was my primary source of pocket money for many years. It took me a long time to figure out that this was an unusual arrangement.
Let’s fast-forward now about twenty years. Thirty-one years ago, I met my dear wife Rachel, and on our first or second date, it became apparent to me that she was not only beautiful (I saw that right away), but also very learned. “My father will really like you,” I told her. She married me anyway. Rachel was his kind of girl: beautiful and smart, and also skilled in the womanly arts. Afterwards, Rachel became to him the daughter he never had. He also became a great fan of Rachel’s cooking.
Abba was a great scholar and Abba was very passionate about scholarship. You have heard and will hear more about that from other speakers. Beyond his scholarship. Abba had another great passion: The New York Times, which he devoured on a daily basis. One incident involving the New York Times stands out.
Though I was born in London, I grew up as an American in a thoroughly British household. “Take me out to the ball game” goes the famous American ode to baseball by Jack Norworth. So I asked Abba, many times, to take me to a baseball game. This was asking a lot from him. Firstly, he regarded it as bitul Torah, “a waste of time” where the time was better spent studying Torah. Secondly, if one were to interrupt one’s studies to discuss or engage in sports, then it was obvious that cricket was the only respectable sport. Nevertheless, Abba wanted to be a good father, so he reluctantly agreed. So as not to make the afternoon a total loss, he took along with him his beloved Sunday Times, and buried himself in it, paying not the slightest attention to the game. Every now and then, he looked up to enquire, “had enough yet?”
The essence of Abba was his teaching. Beyond one-on-one study at home, I had two opportunities to study with Abba in a formal setting. The first of these was at the Camp Ramah Seminar in Israel, a summer tour and study program in Israel, where Abba was the Scholar in Residence during the summer of 1965. The amazing thing about that trip was that Abba was able to engage teenagers on a summer vacation, many with only limited backgrounds. Abba taught us the ancient texts relevant to the different places that we visited. We all learned how to read the ancient Phoenician script, for example, and we were able to read the Siloam Inscription when we visited Hezekiah’s tunnel (me’arat Hizkiyahu).
While thoroughly versed in all aspects of Judaic studies, Abba’s true passion was the Tanach, the “kaf-daled seforim” as he often called them. And of all the 24 books of the Bible, his favorite was undoubtedly the Book of Psalms, or “Tillim”. As an undergraduate at Brandeis, I got to see Abba in his element, when he taught us a course in the Book of Psalms. Being more of an engineer than a scholar, and more into Rabbinics than into Psalms, I wondered at the time what was the reason for Abba’s great love of Psalms. The answer, I believe is contained in the Introduction to his book, “Songs of the Heart” about Psalms. Quoting from Midrash Tehillim, Abba writes; “Rabbi Yodan said in the name of Rabbi Yehuda: ‘ Whatever David says in his book pertains to himself, to all Israel, and to all times.’ ” He then writes, “The genius of the Book of Psalms lies in this: while it is time-based in origin, it is ever fresh and timely, and hence timeless.”
For Abba, the Psalms were meant to be taken to heart, as the name of his book implies. Allow me one more short quote: The psalms, he says, “were made to be internalized.” “Diligent recitation and study of them is – and catch this next word – propaeudutic to a higher level of spirituality and piety.” One can appreciate Abba fully, only with the aid of a good dictionary.
Abba personified Torah U’Mada. Always a halachic Jew and a Rav, he was nonetheless open-minded, with an inquiring mind, who sought out, as the motto of this University says it so well, “Truth, even unto its innermost parts.”
Now you cannot have a complete picture of Abba, without seeing his relationship with Imma, his wife of 58 years. Imma was a true ezer kenegdo, his helpmate and an ayshet chayil. For many decades, she faithfully cooked his food, balanced his checkbook, and did everything so that Abba could devote himself to Torah study. For seventy-five years or more, Abba’s domestic skills were limited to making a cup of English tea, or occasionally boiling an egg. Then, as Imma’s legs began to fail her, she could no longer do what she had done so eagerly for fifty years, Abba willingly took on new domestic responsibilities. It is a measure of the man that in his very late seventies, he took on the role of care-giver – even at the expense of his beloved scholarship – willingly and eagerly, devoting himself to making Imma more comfortable.
Even in his last years, severely limited in his mobility and capabilities, he kept his sense of humor, his sense of propriety, and his modest and undemanding ways. Abba had a long, full and happy life. He had the merit to raise generations of distinguished students for whom he was a role model and not just a teacher. He brought Torah to many. He made a difference in the world.
May his memory be for a blessing. Yehe’ zichro baruch.