This is a text version of my Rosh Hashanah 5780 day 2 sermon:
We were standing graveside, burying a woman who was the family’s beloved mother and grandmother. She had lived a long and good life, well into her 90s, having been blessed with a long and loving marriage, with children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. There was sadness, but also there was a sense of celebration and gratitude. The last thing we do graveside is recite the mourner’s kaddish, and I asked the mourners to stand. As the woman’s children rose to their feet, so did her grandchildren. And then the family – the woman’s children and her grandchildren – together! -began to say the kaddish.
Let me give you another scenario. A baby naming. A beautiful baby girl is being welcomed into her family, given her Hebrew name, and entered into the covenant between God and Israel. As her mother and father explain the names they’ve chosen for their daughter they tell us that one of the names is for a beloved grandmother of theirs. This is not unusual – we name our children and grandchildren after beloved family members. But what is unusual is that the woman the baby is being named for is alive and sitting in the room. When that baby – the great granddaughter – is placed in the lap of that woman – her great grandmother – bearing her name, it is a powerful moment, one not to be forgotten.
You probably know that neither of these things is traditional. There was a time when grandchildren would never have thought to stand for kaddish for a grandparent, and in fact they are not obligated to do so by Jewish law. And the idea of naming a baby after a living relative was considered to be absolutely forbidden. But more and more I am seeing grandchildren recite kaddish for their grandparents, and more and more I am seeing babies named after living relatives, usually great grandparents.
This is happening because the nature of the relationship between grandchildren and grandparents has changed in the last quarter century. There was a time when you really didn’t get to know your grandparents. Before you were bar or bat mitzvah they were often already gone. But today, people who are 30 or 40 or even 50 may still have their grandparents in their lives. Grandparents and grandchildren travel together. They go out to dinner and lunch together, they play golf or cards together. The connection between them, the loving bonds that exist, these are things we have not seen before. And because of that deep connection, grandchildren feel they should say kaddish when they lose a grandparent. Or here they are, becoming parents when their grandparents are still alive, and they say what greater honor could there be than for us to name our children for this man or this woman we so deeply love and respect.
So I would like to tell you this morning the story of a grandfather and his grandson. The grandfather is the Boston Red Sox’s Carl Yaztremski. Often just called Yaz, Yaztremski had a 23 year major league career, was selected as an all star 18 times, won 7 gold gloves playing the outfield, had more than 3,000 hits, 400 HRs, and in 1967 had one of the greatest seasons in baseball history, winning the triple crown while hitting .326 with 44 HRs and 121 RBIs. Those of you who are not baseball fans, I ask for your forgiveness for all the statistics. That is simply all a long way of saying that Carl Yaztremski was one of the greatest baseball players of all time.
His grandson Mike – Mike Yaztremski – has a long ways to go to catch up to his grandfather. This is his rookie season in the major leagues, playing for the San Francisco Giants. Young Mike is having a good season – hitting .267, with 20 HRs, mostly hitting leadoff. Now those are not Carl Yaztremski numbers, but they are nothing to sneeze at.
That is the background. Here is the story:
Just about 2 weeks ago the Giants came to Fenway Park in Boston to play the Red Sox in a series, and it was there, at Fenway, where his grandfather hit so many HRs, that Mike hit his 20th. The last time a Yaztremski had hit a HR at Fenway Park? 1983, the last time Yaz had done it. And here we were, 36 years later, as his grandson stepped up to the plate, and hit a first pitch fastball in the 4th inning to dead center field. As it cleared the wall you could hear the fans cheering like crazy.
It was a special moment, one I am sure the young Yaztremski will remember for the rest of his life. But the next night was even more special.
I imagine you know that baseball games begin with the ceremonial throwing out of a first pitch. I know there are people in the room today who have done that over the years. This night at Fenway Park they asked Carl Yaztremski to throw out that first pitch – to his grandson Mike. The elder Yaztremski, a fiery competitor to the end, insisted on coming out of the Red Sox dugout, wearing a Red Sox jersey. His grandson came out of the visiting team’s dugout – the Giants. The two men, split by a half a century and two generations, walked towards each other in front of the sell out crowd, meeting right about the pitcher’s mound, and embracing one another, grandfather and grandson. There was not a dry eye in the house.
After their embrace, the grandfather walked to the pitcher’s mound, the grandson crouched behind home plate. Carl Yaztremski doesn’t spend much time these days throwing a baseball – he is after all 80 years old! – but that night at Fenway he threw a perfect strike, and the ball nestled softly into his grandson’s glove. I saw a photo of the moment, with the senior Yaz’s arm still extended, and his grandson having just caught the ball. The caption of the photo? A perfect strike, from one generation to the next.
L’dor va’dor indeed.
One last story for you this morning. This the story of a grandson and his grandmother – in this case, me and my Bubbe, Kate. It was the spring of 1987, and I was working on my master’s degree at College Park. My dad turned 50 that spring, and my mom had arranged to have a celebration, inviting the entire extended family to our home in upstate New York. Since I was at College Park, my job was to swing through Baltimore, and pick up my Bubbe, and safely transport her to Binghamton for the party.
Piece of cake, right? Bubbe was 87 at the time, and I figured I would get to her place, get her settled in the car, get on the road, and then she would probably doze off, at which point I could play my Grateful Dead tapes for the duration of the four and a half hour ride.
There was one problem with my plan. At 87, my Bubbe was sharp as a tack. Not only did she not sleep, but she spent the entire four plus hours talking to me. And she was not interested in the Grateful Dead. She wanted to know what I was going to do with my degree, she wanted to know where I thought I might live, she wanted to know was I dating anyone – she was a bubbe, after all!
Then I began to ask her questions. About her life, growing up, what it was like, her parents. She talked about my Zayde, who had died when I was 12. She told me about why her Judaism was so important to her, and she asked me if I ever went to synagogue, and if I still remembered my Hebrew from Hebrew school.
I will never forget those four hours. My Bubbe, in her old age, spoke to me as she never had before. She told me what truly mattered to her, the values and commitments she cherished, what she had lived for. And she told me she hoped those things would be important to me too. That conversation changed my life. In the days and then the months, and now the years since, I have thought about it over and over again. I can tell you for sure I would not be as Jewishly oriented or connected as I am. I would not be as appreciative of family. I would not have as strong a sense of what is truly important in life. To be honest with you, I don’t think I would be standing here, on a Rosh Hashanah day, in this pulpit, as your rabbi. Or that our children – her great grandchildren – would have received the kind of Jewish education they did, or live with the Jewish values they do every single day.
That of course is exactly what we’ve read about in the Torah the last couple of days. That conversation with my Bubbe was a continuation of a conversation that goes all the way back to Abraham and Sarah, and their struggle to transmit their dreams and values from one generation to the next. They are in a sense our great-grandparents and grandparents and parents, and we are their grandchildren. And we are here today to embrace them once again, to renew our love for their message to us through the ages. And to know in our hearts and souls, at the start of a new year, who we should be, and what joys we have received in life from that golden tradition.
You see, baseball season ends – even if you do make the playoffs. But Bubbie-ball never does. It continues from season to season, from year to year, and from one generation to the next.
May we all – children and parents, grandchildren and grandparents – do our part to play it well, and to pay it forward in this new year. It should be a year of goodness, sustenance, and peace for all.