The ProsenPeople

A Letter in a Drawer

Friday, February 28, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Charles S. Sherman wrote about a miraculous baseball team and a life-altering event and how he's handled the challenge. His book,The Broken and the Whole: Discovering Joy after Heartbreak, will be published in March by Scribner. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Rabbi Jack Riemer is one of my favorite people. He is a "rabbi's rabbi." Our personal relationship is at best, casual. We are from different generations. But I enjoy his preaching style, his talent for being at the same time folksy and instructive. He has the ability to take the seemingly ordinary, the "Seinfeld moments" in our lives, and discover a profound Jewish and universal truth. His messages are frequently delivered with a twinkle in his eye and a great sense of humor.

I was flattered, some weeks ago, to receive, unsolicited, a lovely email from Rabbi Riemer. Somehow he had learned about my forthcoming book and requested a review copy. His reviews are well-respected and honest. His reviews are carried in many Jewish newspapers throughout North America. Thus I was excited to receive his email.

Almost 30 years ago, when my son Eyal suffered a brainstem stroke, leaving him quadriplegic and vent dependent, I received lots of lovely cards and generous letters offering prayers and support. Back then, I delivered a sermon, "There are No Atheists in Intensive Care," that was probably more for me than for other people. It was published in a small professional journal, The American Rabbi. Apparently Rabbi Riemer had read it and was kind enough to drop me a handwritten note, that to this day I have kept. It was one of encouragement and friendship, albeit very brief. "Just a note to say, how deeply moved I was by your sermon in The American Rabbi. I wish you and your family much strength—thank you for sharing your soul with us."

When I received Rabbi Riemer's request for a review copy, my mind went back to that letter that was still in my desk drawer. I wrote Rabbi Riemer and told him I still had the letter. I even quoted it. He in turn wrote back to me: "I was just writing a sermon when your email came in, about how you sometimes do what you think is a small deed, and how it ends up affecting the world more than you know. The example I was using was the stranger who met Joseph, and told him where his brothers were. If he had not been there, Joseph and later his people would not have gone down to Egypt and there would have been no Exodus. That stranger changed the course of human history and yet if you had asked him: Did he remember that one-minute conversation that he had had with the teenager Joseph, he would have probably said no. I feel that way about your letter and the fact that you saved my note for all of these years."

If all of us look back on our lives, we can remember our childhood when an adult—a teacher, a coach, a neighbor or an aunt or uncle perhaps—offered a kind word or some advice that helped us during a difficult time. They may not have understood the impact of their words and or actions. But I contend those are the things that we hold onto, that we remember always.

Charles S. Sherman is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Adath Yeshurun, the largest synagogue in Central New York. Active in numerous faith-based and secular organizations, he has received many awards for his service and has been a respected member of his community for over forty years. He and his wife, Leah, parents of five children, live with their son Eyal in Syracuse, New York.

A Miraculous Baseball Team

Wednesday, February 26, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Charles S. Sherman wrote about a life-altering event and how he's handled the challenge. His book, The Broken and the Whole: Discovering Joy after Heartbreak, will be published in March by Scribner. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

"Spring training" has just opened up. America's favorite past-time signals warm weather, longer days, family outings, the good times. T-ball, little league, sandlot, at one time we all have engaged the crack of the bat, the excitement of rounding the bases.

When my son, Eyal, who is quadriplegic and vent dependent, was growing up, he played on a baseball team, called The Challengers. Summer evenings, a couple of times a week, our family would pile into our specially-equipped van and drive a half hour or so to a baseball field in North Syracuse. It’s clear the name of the team was coined because each player faces serious challenges. My son, "Big Al," (does not every serious ball player have a nickname?) played third base.

When you watch these kids play baseball, at first there is a sense of disbelief and even restlessness. When the ball is hit, children are lifted and hoisted from wheelchairs and shuttled around the bases as family members and friends clap and cheer. In this league, ingenuity and imagination are the name of the game. For a girl who is blind, there is a special baseball that produces a beeping sound. A young boy smacks the ball using his crutch as a baseball bat. And all the time, parents and siblings are facilitating, enabling and empowering. You don’t have to watch for long to realize something very special is taking place on this baseball diamond, and it has very little to do with the game of baseball itself. It has to do with relationships, cooperation, perseverance and possibility. Whenever these kids play, I am witness to miracles as awe-inspiring as the splitting of the Red Sea. Previously, my understanding of a miracle was more "Bible stuff." The expected lightning and thunder, mountains that shudder, now we're talking miracles. But a miracle is nine kids on a baseball team, some of them cannot see, others cannot talk, and still others cannot even move. And they play baseball three nights a week in North Syracuse. Now that's a miracle to write home about.

I’m reminded of this special baseball team whenever I visit the Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, not far from my home. On the second floor, there is a theater that has been constructed to simulate an old-time major league baseball park. It allows you to sit in bleacher chairs, right up close to the action, you can even hear the voices of the ball players and those of the concessionaires, hawking programs, peanuts and cracker jacks. In this nostalgic environment, there is a seven-minute film clip, a young major leaguer walloping a baseball, a winning runner crossing home plate, hands held high. Candid shots, of modern major leaguers to little leaguers. And it all ends with the voices of children playing baseball in some cow pasture. And this voiceover:

"Baseball is a part of the very fabric of America. And at whatever level we experience it... whether we play it... or watch it ... from backyard to major league stadium... it is a game that speaks to us of more than box scores and starting line-ups. It is a game that reflects:

Triumph...and defeat,

the strength at the beginning...the wisdom near the end,

the bad days...and the good"

Baseball approaches myth because it is a celebration of life. As author Roger Angell wrote, “Since baseball is measured only in outs, all you have to do is succeed utterly, keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time. You remain forever young.”

Okay, "Big Al," Eyal, get ready champ. You're on deck. Batter Up!

Charles S. Sherman is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Adath Yeshurun, the largest synagogue in Central New York. Active in numerous faith-based and secular organizations, he has received many awards for his service and has been a respected member of his community for over forty years. He and his wife, Leah, parents of five children, live with their son Eyal in Syracuse, New York.

The Ellipsis

Monday, February 24, 2014 | Permalink

Charles S. Sherman is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Adath Yeshurun, the largest synagogue in Central New York. His book, The Broken and the Whole: Discovering Joy after Heartbreak, will be published in March by Scribner. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

No thunder, bolts of lightning, heavenly voices, not even a friendly angel. Nonetheless, a transforming life experience, frozen in time and space.

In 1986, I was 41 years old, and life was pretty good. I had it all: professionally satisfied, rabbi of a very large congregation, a terrific wife, four young children, two girls, two boys, expecting our fifth in three months. In my business, "the rabbi business" some 13 years post-ordination, I was convinced I had seen it all: the continuum, life, death and everything in between. And as a “Good Rabbi” I was instructed in what to say and even how to say it, dispensing traditional wisdom, comfort, and perspective. For whatever reason, I was insulated and protected from life's bad stuff, again life was better than good.

But then – and I guess in the story of life there is always a “but then.” Our older son, four-year-old Eyal, is in serious respiratory distress. The medical opinion is a deep-seated lesion on his brainstem, a death sentence, at most several weeks. The specifics of the narrative are not necessary, suffice to say, after surgery Eyal suffers an incapacitating brain stem stroke leaving him a total quadriplegic. All his necessary human functions are artificially maintained. But Eyal persists and perseveres, defying his doctors and their harsh prognosis and everyone else who has reminded him of what he cannot do. Now 32, Eyal lives with my wife and me. He had a Bar Mitzvah, he graduated high school and college.

Being a parent of a child so physically broken, so dependent on others, changed me. It was as if a new life started for me the day of Eyal’s stroke. I wish I could have learned these important life lessons taking a class, studying a book, hearing others’ stories. But I learned the painful and at times inspiring lessons firsthand.

It has taken me years to get it right. To distinguish between the essential and the irrelevant. I may not always act on my belief system. Like a lot of folks, there remains a divide between creed and deed. But I find myself much more accepting, tolerant, and inclusive, preferring to err on the side of forgiveness than righteous indignation. I've learned about context and perspective. I've learned a new definition of community. There are certain things like poverty, illness, and vulnerability that do not distinguish between class, gender, race, national origin, or faith. And I've learned about random acts of generosity and kindness in the most unexpected places from the most unexpected people.

Looking at Eyal, so physically broken, I sometimes wonder if I knew then, March 1986, what I know now, that I would have to redefine my goals and ambitions, both personal and professional, the quality of my relationships, the definition of friendship and authenticity. I am not so sure I would have had the wisdom, faith, confidence, temperament, and persistence to handle what some suggest as impossible challenges. But I did do it, discovering strength and even a faith reaffirmed that I never thought possible. I used to think the punctuation of life begins and ends with an exclamation point. But what I've learned is that the punctuation of life is more like the ellipsis ... you see the story never ends.

Active in numerous faith-based and secular organizations, Charles S. Sherman has received many awards for his service and has been a respected member of his community for over forty years. He and his wife, Leah, parents of five children, live with their son Eyal in Syracuse, New York.