This saga may have started on a fall day in 1928 when my dad, Sidney Ballon, first stepped on the Brown University campus as a freshman. Regardless, this has been a story long in the making. Dad and his younger brother, Herbie, the “Ballon boys” of Providence, were much heralded in their day. They took all the math and Latin awards at Classical High School, or so legend has it. They were both Phi Beta Kappa at Brown—Dad in the Class of 1932.
The next generation benefited from their legacy. I don’t know about my brother, Jeff, five years my senior, but as for me, without legacy my high school grades alone surely would not have merited admittance to Brown. Yes, I had board scores showing a lot of promise, but face it, I neither knew how to study nor why one would bother. At the time, I was not ready for East Podunk Community College, let alone Brown. But I got in with the fervent hope that the small size of the school would provide a nurturing environment in which my potential would be realized.
In addition to my having developed no discernible study skills, being practically devoid of intellectual curiosity, and possessing a prefrontal cortex very much “under development,” I also suspect that underlying that shaky intellectual foundation was even less stable psychological soil. I’ve come to believe that personal demons were at work, anxious to prove to me and to the world that I was unworthy. Simultaneously, they may have been striking back at my father for putting me in this untenable position. With all that at work, it’s a wonder it took me five semesters to flunk out! Chalk that up, I suppose, to perseverance.
I had been skating on thin ice most of the way. During the fall semester of my junior year, I cleverly, if unconsciously, assured my academic demise and subsequent departure by scheduling a full slate of morning classes while virtually sleeping until noon every day. That allowed me to avoid the discomfort of sitting in a class for which I was unprepared. It also gave me a wide open afternoon and evening to pursue my real interests: intramural sports, marching band, writing scandalous halftime shows, playing bridge and hearts, and general horsing around with my buddies. (Okay, I did show up in the art studio by and large, but even there, my instructor questioned my commitment.)
It’s only conjecture, fifty-one years later, but I have to assume I experienced as much relief as remorse when the hammer finally came down. And the guilt—yeah, there was a healthy dose of that. It was aided and abetted by Jeff, who had managed to squeak through with the Class of ‘64, and who may have taken a small measure of glee by bluntly declaring to me that I was “killing Dad.“
The fact is, by my dismissal, I got all that I had long, but unconsciously wished for—a ticket out. It was Jeff‘s fate (or choice) to follow in our father‘s footsteps—Brown, Hebrew Union College, ordination as a reform rabbi, service as a chaplain in the United States military, a pulpit in the south, a pulpit in the north. I, by contrast, could now cash in my golden ticket to do anything and everything else that life offered. What a relief! What a ride! The following autumn I miraculously found myself in a tiny art school in Portland, Oregon—yes, three thousand miles from Providence! It was the late sixties. Tune in, turn on, and drop out was the mantra. While I didn’t push that to its extremes, I, nonetheless, enjoyed a great burst of creativity and a refreshing breath of freedom. And yes, Jeffrey’s admonishment went with me wherever I went—mostly unconsciously, sometimes bursting through in judgment, shame, and anger toward myself and others.
I have to accept my role in nurturing the shame throughout the years. Dad’s gone. Jeff’s gone. Of what use was it for me to perpetuate shame thrust on me for simply doing what I had to do? As the poet, Mary Oliver put it:
There should be no villains in this story—just understanding, acceptance, and forgiveness. We all did all we could do, all we knew how to do, under circumstances not entirely of our making. At last, I’ve concluded that half a century is sufficient purgatory.
To put it in another context, what do today’s youngsters do when they aren’t quite ready for college? They exercise the option of taking a “gap year”—not a socially acceptable approach, or one even given consideration back in the sixties. Aha! How clever of me! Ahead of my time! I unwittingly created my own “gap year”—albeit two-and-a half years, albeit at great expense, albeit nonsensically on a college campus instead of a worthy alternative. And what did I accomplish in the “intersession“ of my own making? I met a lot of unmet needs that were critical to my development and to preparing me for a life of learning—just as a gap year should.
Perhaps the greatest need that was met at Brown, in sharp contrast to my life at West Hempstead High School, was a sense of social ease. In high school I was known to one and all as “the rabbi’s son” and suffered from more than the typical adolescent alienation. Whereas, at Brown, no one knew or cared who my father was. I was one of the guys! I had buddies. We played cards and sports, watched the original Mission Impossible and Batman, had meals together in the refectory, hung out in the dorm. I fit in!
One rewarding similarity with high school was how I took a leadership position in the band. At Brown, due to the nature of the largely student run organization I had an even greater role than in West Hempstead. It wasn’t long before I became part of the comedy writing team responsible for the aforementioned scandalous halftime shows. Later, when I became president of the band, I used my art skills to create a cartoon self-portrait as a “mascot” logo that, much to my surprise was, in later years, dubbed Elrod Snidley, and is still in use today—my legacy to Brown! (3)
Meanwhile, my frontal cortex was slowly developing, such that academic pursuits subsequent to Brown were highly successful—an artistic achievement award from the University of Judaism, dean’s list and a bachelor’s degree in education from Hofstra, a Master of Architecture from Yale, to wit. Yes, Brown provided a virtual and formidable “gap year.“ I am proud of my achievements there and all that they led to throughout my academic and professional life.
I didn’t come to this realization in a single flash of insight and clarity. It was a process. It took some time, some deep probing, some work. Strange as it may seem, I owe a lot to my dreams—not the aspirational kind, but the one’s that come in the middle of the night. I’ve long paid attention to them, and especially so in the last few years. I have a friend with whom I regularly meet to support each other in sifting for the subconscious messages to be found in our dreams. I have a spiritual director who has expertise in doing dream work in a spiritual context. And I have worked with a Jungian therapist for whom my dreams provide fertile ground for psychological exploration. I can’t say exactly when and where among these resources I finally put all the pieces together. That’s part of the magic of living an “examined life.”
In his book, From Age-ing to Sage-ing, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi says that part of a constructive approach to aging is to make amends with the past by recontextualizing one’s life. Having finally reframed the joys and sorrows of my Brown experience, there was only one thing left for me to do. To appreciate this next point, I must describe a piece of Brown University lore.
Brown’s Van Wickle Gates provide a ceremonial entrance to the campus. The monumental main gates are flanked by two smaller side gates that remain open throughout the year. The central gates, however, remain locked except for the first day of each semester when they open inward for incoming students and on Commencement Day each May, when they swing outward for the graduation procession.
The Van Wickle Gates, Brown University (4)
On the first day of classes in September 1965, I walked alone through the grand inward swinging gates, and vowed that I would exit four years hence with the Class of ’69. However, having taken leave of the campus in February 1968, that was a box that remained unchecked all these decades. It was with full appreciation of the traditions associated with the gates, as well as my arduous wrestling with the demons of the past, that I chose this year to take my place with the Brown University Class of 1969 and pass through the Van Wickle Gates to commemorate the 50th reunion of our class and my first return to campus, now as a proud alum.(5)
I did it!
It was stupendous!
Memorial Day weekend was devoted to class reunions and Commencement exercises at Brown. Friday and Saturday provided much joy as I reunited with guys (and a very few gals) who were part of my life at Brown. I’m a bit of a reunion junkie of late. With my high school 50th and architecture school 40th reunions in recent years, I’ve come to deeply appreciate the perspective on life that such gatherings afford. This was no exception.
There was ample time to socialize with old buddies, as well as with folks whose names and faces I never really knew well and, in many cases, not at all. There were thought-provoking programs allowing us to examine such topics as the revolutionary curriculum reform instituted just after I left (such the pity), the Black Student Walkout of 1968 demanding true inclusion of minorities, as well as the impact of the Vietnam War on class members whether we were gung-ho ROTC trainees, strident war protesters, or anywhere in between.
One highlight was a visit I made to the current Brown University Marching Band as they rehearsed for Sunday’s commencement festivities. It is their tradition to listen to firsthand accounts of the band’s history from returning band alumni. I gladly joined my two closest friends from our days in the band to share some memories. Not only did I give them the backstory of the creation of Elrod Snidley, but I also, spontaneously, took the opportunity to pass on some hard-earned advice, suggesting that they not take things overly seriously when they are faced with challenges—I consider myself living proof that things change!
All along, it was really about Sunday morning and the commencement processional. The way it is customarily choreographed is for the band to lead the graduating class through the gates, followed by the faculty and the alumni, by year, beginning with the oldest. Each group proceeds down the street with individuals peeling off to one side or the other as they go, creating an ever-lengthening corridor of admirers cheering the succeeding marchers. That’s great fun in itself. It becomes a long, long line of revelers on each side of the street that stretches out of sight down College Hill.
As the few classes ahead of ours made their way through the gates, my sense of anticipation grew. Finally, I arrived at the mythic threshold to the campus. My two band buddies, seasoned veterans of this annual event, had intentionally moved ahead of me, all the better to capture “my moment” on their iPhones. I am so glad they did, given that their photos and videos convey what I can barely put into words.
The scene was pretty much a ragtag bunch of gray-hairs waving tiny Brown pennants. Many classmates were clad in brown commemorative t-shirts designed for our class by famed New Yorker cartoonist and Brown art professor emeritus, Ed Koren. The steady cadence of a bass drum punctuated the whoops of the crowd.
Suddenly I appear amidst the crowd, walking noticeably slower than those around me. Clearly I want to savor this moment. With pennant raised high in my right hand, I pause for a photo op and raise my left hand just as high—two outstretched arms capturing the expansive energy of the moment. Fellow classmates, oblivious to the ritual I am living, continue streaming past me as I am holding the moment in time and space as long as I can, finally taking two steps that complete my passage beneath the iron arch. As I stride, I bend my neck backward, looking up, bringing my hands to my mouth, blowing a kiss to the gates or to the heavens, uttering an audible sigh of contentment. My slow steps turning into a saunter as the grin on my face widens even further.
The last group in the procession—the most recent alumni—passed through the gates. Then, in order, the previous marchers left their positions along the side of the street cascading through the throng below them like a sock folding inside out, allowing every participant to pass by every other participant. Our class, being among the eldest alumni, was one of the earliest groups to march down, so in this second phase we passed by many more on the sidelines than we had at first. It seemed that spirits were continuously rising. Given that our class was well established in Brown history as being responsible for the radical curriculum change that has made Brown one of the most desirable institutions of learning, and perhaps with some prurient chortling at the Class of Soixante-neuf thrown in, there were great cheers for us as we walked down the hill. The pace seemed to quicken as I strode along slapping countless high-fives, spontaneously bestowing blessings of peace, love, happiness, prosperity, satisfaction, upon every eager hand and face among those in cap and gown. It was the closest experience I’ve had to emulating the loving bestowal of blessing I saw my brother so freely give in his final days. It answered the question I have often asked since, “Is it possible to spread love and blessing without having a fatal diagnosis?“ Indeed it is. Granted, this was a unique set of circumstances. Nonetheless, it was pure joy.
At last, I had taken my triumphal march through the Van Wickle Gates! The vow I had made as an entering freshman so many years ago, only needed a little modification to become realized. What I eventually accomplished—without respect to the timing—was to march through these storied gates with my classmates as an educated man. What more could I ask for? Ironically, I was not the only member of the Class of ’69 who received this delayed gratification that morning. As it so happened, none of my classmates walked through the gates in 1969. The political unrest was such back then, that the administration was afraid that our activist class would stage a disruptive and embarrassing protest. Thus, they used the flimsy excuse of mildly inclement weather to move graduation indoors to the hockey arena that year.
The Van Wickle Gates have acquired numerous legends and superstitions over the years. The Brown Alumni website acknowledges the history and mystery of the gates on a page devoted to them. They close their posting, as shall I, with this piece of insight based on the etymology of the word gate:
I couldn’t agree more.
Deepak Chopra advises to act with focused intention and detachment from results. Sometimes that opens a space for results greater than imagined, such as today.
Our daughter, Becca, was advised by her doctors at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital to schedule the delivery of her son a full month in advance of the due date. Hers was a high-risk pregnancy. It would require the presence of two surgical teams—one to deliver the baby by Caesarean birth, and the second to perform critical surgery on Becca to assure her welfare. Aside from the serious medical challenges, we also realized that a traditional Brit Milah might be impossible. We could not predict how long the baby would be kept in intensive care, when he would be discharged from the hospital, or when he would be healthy enough for circumcision. A lot of alternative scenarios were contemplated, but no decisions could be made in advance of the facts.
Some facts emerged yesterday, as we learned that the baby was to be discharged today, and his circumcision was scheduled for 10:30 a.m.—coincidentally on his eighth day of life. We did not know if the designated doctor would allow any family members to be present, nor if the moment would allow for any ritual observances. Nonetheless, I set my intention on the best possible outcome by preparing a brief Brit Milah service with the customary prayers printed on a handout for any and all attendees. At most, that would likely be restricted to the baby’s parents, two sets of grandparents and, of course, the surgeon.
Fate seemed, at first, to be unkind. Heading up to San Francisco from Palo Alto, Route 101 was jammed. GPS suggested an alternate route that would barely get us to the hospital in time even if parking and getting through security were seamless and timeless—which they never are. Moreover, Becca texted that, in a rarity, rather than being behind schedule, the medical staff was actually moving the procedure up fifteen minutes. In addition, only the parents would be allowed to be present during the procedure. No way would we be there in time, even if it were only to hang out nearby. Rather than tensing up, cursing the traffic, the hospital, and God, and not even mindful of Deepak’s words at the time, I somehow naturally adopted his philosophy and allowed myself the liberating feeling of letting go. “It’ll be fine,” I told Debbie.
After more than an hour and a quarter on the road, we reached the hospital at 10:30. I dropped Debbie off at the entry and headed for the parking structure. Miraculously, a space opened up before me on the second level, unlike the previous visit where I had taken the long serpentine climb to the tenth and uppermost level before finding a spot.
When I arrived in the baby’s intensive care room he and his parents had not yet returned from the procedure. Our machatonim, Steve and Cheryl, were there along with Debbie, and a chaplain who just happened to be paying a visit at that time. I told her what our hopes for the morning had been, and that I had even prepared some prayers for the ritual. She readily understood and quickly added that she was Jewish. I suggested that perhaps we could all perform the service after the fact, but that I had forgotten to bring some wine for the Kiddush. She volunteered to search for some, presumably in the spiritual care office.
Soon after the chaplain departed, Becca, Josh, and the baby arrived. To our surprise and delight they described how the pediatrician assigned to the procedure happened to be Jewish. While many babies are arbitrarily circumcised just before leaving the hospital, Becca mentioned to the doctor that today was actually the baby’s eighth day, and that they were hoping to say a few prayers. The doctor was delighted! She had a little boy of her own and could relate. Moreover, despite having performed thousands of circumcisions, she had never done one on the eighth day as commanded, let alone with the traditional blessings. She asked Becca to email her the service that I had sent to Becca the night before, in order that the doctor print copies of it for their use.
The service begins with the milah prayer that is customarily said by the mohel. Under the current circumstances I had little hope that the doctor involved would be up to doing that, so my notation in the handout was for that prayer to be offered by the “Surgeon or Parent.” This surgeon, however, did not hesitate to speak the words,
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al ha-milah.
Becca and Josh were sitting just outside the surgical room. Their vision of the baby was obstructed by the doctor, but they were within earshot. They responded with the translation,
Blessed are You, Adonai, guiding spirit of the universe, who has sanctified us through Your mitzvot and ordained circumcision.
After performing some technical preparations, the doctor informed Josh and Becca that the circumcision was beginning. That was their cue to say,
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l'hakhniso bivrito shel avraham avinu v'sarah imeinu.
Blessed are You, Adonai, guiding spirit of the universe, who has made us holy with Your commandments and commanded us to bring our son into the covenant of Abraham our father and Sarah our mother.
There it was—all (or certainly most) that I had truly hoped for—the ritual of circumcision with the requisite blessings!
We waited some time for the chaplain to return with the wine, but the exigencies of the baby’s needs as well as some follow up appointments of Becca’s, forced us to move ahead with the remainder of the service without the Kiddush. (I suspect that the Kiddush here is designed to make wine available for the baby’s comfort as much as anything else! Our baby was peacefully asleep at this point so we were quite willing to continue without the wine.) We moved on to officially give the boy a name. With parents and grandparents all in attendance, I read,
Eloheynu v'elohey avoteynu v'imoteynu, kayem et ha-yeled ha-zeh l'aviv u-l'imo, v'yikarey shmo b'yisrael Shmuel Etan ben Yehoshua v’Rivkah. Baruch atah Adonay, koreit ha-brit.
Our God and God of our fathers and mothers, sustain this child for his father and mother. May his name in Israel be called Shmuel Etan son of Yehoshua and Rivkah, and Samuel Eugene Shapiro in English. Blessed are you, God, who establishes the covenant.
I couldn’t say if there was a dry eye in the room as I was too filled with joyful emotion to observe. We all recited the Shehekheyanu, expressing gratitude to be alive in that moment. Josh and Becca lay hands on their son and recited the priestly benedictions. And lastly, and again with much emotion, Becca recited the Gomel prayer—words of gratitude for surviving childbirth, serious surgery, or, as in this case, both.
If we had had perfect foreknowledge of all the factors influencing this morning—the timing of the procedure, the traffic, the doctor’s religion, the hospital rules, etc. we could not have planned a more deeply experienced, heartfelt, and joyous sequence of events. I knew when I arranged the service folder and sent it to Becca that it would seem like too much to orchestrate given all the other physical and emotional challenges of the day. In an attempt to relieve her of the feeling that I was pressuring them to do more than was desirable or even possible, I had texted her last night, in complete honesty, “Prepared for the full range of possibilities. No worries.” That range was from absolutely no ritual observance, to the possibility of doing what was written on the handout—if not in the hospital then perhaps later at home.
Deepak was right. The intention was set. The outcome was left open to circumstance. Our patience and fluidity led to the consecration of this precious boy that exceeded all expectations. Baruch hashem.
My email message read:
Two boxes of Rabbi Sidney Ballon's sermons are en route to you via UPS. Delivery is expected Friday. Attached is the signed Deed of Gift.
And with that, after nearly forty-four years in my possession, my dad’s papers are on their way to their final resting place, the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, Ohio. The end of an era for me. I “inherited” these documents much too soon, at the age of twenty-seven, upon my father’s death. Now, at the ripening age of seventy, I bequeath them to the generations of students and scholars, who, I am assured, regularly peruse these archives. After my intense scrutiny of these eight hundred or so sermons plus many other speeches and articles—over two million words—it most definitely tugs at my heart to send them off.
I inquired of my chevra as to the proper ritual to mark this departing. I got intelligent and meaningful suggestions. In the end I simply lifted two well-packed cardboard boxes onto the counter at the UPS store. (After summer jobs in our youth Dad and I shared a bit of pride in our packaging skills.) I inserted my credit card in the reader, affixed my electronic signature, took the receipt, drove home, put away the hand truck that assisted my transport of the cartons, walked into my room, pressed our shofar to my lips, and gave Dad a tekiah gedolah on this second day of Elul 5778.
More will follow. Our family will gather in early December, a year after the launch of the book, A Precious Heritage, in which I bequeathed to them thirty-six of my favorite of Dad’s sermons. What exactly we will do at this year’s gathering I cannot say for sure, but it may involve a combination of some of the suggestions offered by friends and family. Havdalah, a piece of art inspired by Dad and his sermons, kaddish d'rabbanan, and a big deli spread, rise among the possibilities.
One more thing. The legacy of my father’s essays—preserved not only in the book, but also in dozens more transcribed and/or scanned to my webpage—still seems somewhat thin compared to the fullness of holding the actual aging pages in one’s hands. To make up for for that, I have withheld from the American Jewish Archives the selected thirty-six sermons, and replaced them with photocopies. The originals remain with me for now, soon to be placed in a 9x12 black clamshell metal-edged archival storage box. Who knows, maybe the uneven impressions of Dad’s fading typewriter ribbon, his pencil scrawl edits, and his now rusty paperclips will one day be held in the hands of another generation of readers. Maybe not, but I will at least allow for the possibility that my future septuagenarian grandchildren might experience these pages with some awe and wonder about their ancestor, Rabbi Sidney Ballon.
Oh, I guess there’s one more piece of the ritual…I wrote this.
June 29 through July 1, 2018, I was an attendee and a presenter at Limmud Bay Area on the campus of Sonoma State University (CA), described as “a weekend of growth, learning, relaxation, and coming together as a [Jewish] community...".
When people ask me, "How was Limmud?" my immediate response is that there were so many ways to customize one’s agenda that inevitably there could be hundreds of unique responses to that question. (I must quickly add, that a generic response is that the weekend very capably met what I saw as its objective of creating a "pop-up" Jewish learning community.)
My personal response would have to be put in the context of my primary goal for the weekend—to help bring awareness, understanding, and an experience of spiritual direction to fellow Jews. I feel confident that, along with two of my spiritual direction colleagues—Wendie Bernstein Lash and Alissa Hirshfeld-Flores, I was successful in this endeavor.
Spiritual direction? What's that? Answering that question always seems to be a challenge because it demands creating a definition for something that is somewhat indefinable and engenders more unique responses than "How was Limmud?" The experience of spiritual direction varies greatly, and the words one is forced to use to describe it often mean different things to different people… When I began to respond to the question with a similar disclaimer, a fellow Limmudnik waved me off, asking for a "standing-on-one-leg" response. Fewer words may or may not provide more clarity, but my quick response was, "A spiritual director is like a personal trainer for your soul." Inexact as that metaphor may be, it seemed to satisfy her immediate curiosity sufficiently for her to sign up for one of the half-hour mini-sessions that we offered throughout the weekend.
Still struggling to provide a definition, I turn now to the words I received in emails from three of the people with whom I provided spiritual direction at Limmud. The following quotes would seem brazenly self-promotional, but for the fact that this really isn't about me. These are typical responses to the sacred process of spiritual direction. I highlighted one word in each quote that reflects a significant aspect of spiritual direction. Feel free to disregard the rest.
Ushering is another way of saying companioning. Both of these words much better reflect what spiritual directors do than does the word directing. We accompany people on their spiritual journeys—wherever they may be along that path. For some, even the word spiritual is problematic. They are looking for meaning and a deep connection in their lives without the use of that particular term (let alone the G-word!). They may find it in nature or the arts, in their relationships with loved ones and in acts of lovingkindness, in their dreams, or maybe just in moments of silence. Others, with or without belief in God, come to spiritual direction with specific problems, yearning for guidance. Whatever seekers may be seeking, it's typically easier for them to recognize what is true or sacred in their lives with the support of a companion with whom to share it. That's where compassion and holy listening come in. Spiritual directors are trained to listen deeply, without judgment, to occasionally hold up a mirror to the seeker or to ask a gentle question to aid in their discernment. The process takes many forms contoured to the specific circumstances of the seeker as well as the spiritual director. By creating a safe container for opening up to the divine flow, spiritual direction facilitates moments of personal revelation, helping one to live life as a spiritual journey.
By taking a taste of spiritual direction in the midst of the cloistered Limmud weekend, seekers (and perhaps the spiritual directors as well) were in an environment that may have especially enhanced their ability to open to divine wisdom. Most of them had specific issues for which they were seeking answers, and the answers readily came—less from the spiritual director than from the seekers themselves. What one brief taste of spiritual direction may not have revealed, however, is the power of the cumulative effect of exploring life's mysteries on an ongoing monthly basis—something readily available from spiritual directors virtually or in person.
It was a privilege and a blessing to engage in these holy conversations with others. Companioning a handful of Limmud attendees, even briefly, only reinforces my quest to bring awareness, understanding, and an experience of spiritual direction to everyone.
A few years ago, after decades of sounding shofar, I started to understand that the mission, the task of the ba'al tekiah—the sounder of the horn—is not to perform these ancient notes, but to offer them to the congregation as a prayer. It requires developing the appropriate kavanah—reverent intention. I spend the entire month of Elul developing that intention by sounding the horn after my morning meditation, reading Psalm 27, etc. On Rosh Hashanah morning, with chant and meditation and prayer, I go more deeply into that spiritual territory. My objective is to become a conduit for the breath of God, to reproduce the ancestral vibrations that may awaken the souls of the listeners and open the gates of heaven to receive their prayers, and to avoid just standing up there “tooting my own horn.” When I manage to achieve some measure of success in this mission, I experience the most spiritual moment of my entire year. The irony is that this pinnacle of spirituality comes on the very first day of the year, which means it's all downhill from there.
A few days ago, I was speaking with my chevruta partner—my spiritual study buddy—and in the course of the conversation, I gained a fresh perspective. I saw this as analogous to how each of us enters the world a pure soul, and then spends the rest of our life trying to recapture that essence. I get a taste of this quest every year. From the moment when the last strain of the Tekiah Gedolah twists out of the horn, I begin anew this annual and lifelong pursuit of deep spiritual connection.
During the shofar service every Rosh Hashanah, I stand next to the rabbi and wait for him to chant the name of each call. I do my best to respond with the prescribed notes, but I’m never entirely sure of how it will sound. I do as much as I can with my lips and lungs to produce the proper vibrations. Of greater importance is what I do with my kavanah.
When the tones issue forth from the horn, I am a listener as much as anyone else in the sanctuary. Sometimes, the sounds are round and true, even melodious. Other times, they are jagged, bleating blasts sounding more like cries or the tremulous alarums they are intended to be. I have learned to embrace whatever I hear in those sacred moments, to marvel in their plaintive beauty or their harsh harangue, their unvarnished demonstration of mastery one second and of struggle the next. As a mortal channel for a divine message, I am aware of my imperfections and forgive them even as I aspire to overcome them. The medium is the message.
This year, in addition to the preparation that I described above, I was affected by what our rabbi had to say just before I ascended the bimah. He recounted to the congregation a poignant story that I had shared with him earlier in the summer. It was about my father and an encounter he had with an Israeli guide who later gave him the shofar that I have sounded for over half a century. The rabbi’s words heightened my emotional and spiritual connection to the imminent sacred task.
In years past, as I stood before the congregation, I would see hundreds of faces in eager anticipation. I would gaze upon friends and family and many strangers as well. This year, I didn't see anyone. Aside from a few moments when I glanced at the prayerbook to recite the ritual blessings, my eyes were closed. I was clinging to the fragile kavanah I had built. I was there to serve the congregation, but I felt a need to do so from within my personal tabernacle. (Some ba’alim tekiah actually pull their tallesim—prayer shawls—over their heads to completely hide their faces.) At the conclusion of the final climatic call, as the last bit of air flowed through the horn and out to the unseen and infinite space beyond me, I instinctively lowered my head and my gaze. I was too spent to visually connect with anyone in that moment.
I managed to kiss my wife and daughter, who remained beside me after they had led the congregation in a pre-shofar reading. Then, I shook the rabbi's hand and carefully stepped down from the bimah, making as little eye contact and shaking as few additional hands as possible on the way to my seat. People naturally wanted to offer words of appreciation, and while my ego is still alive and well and interested in that kind of praise, the rest of me just wanted to sit in the pew in relative isolation.
The service continued as I sat there with my eyes closed, reaping the harvest of a year, a month, and a morning of intense spiritual seeking. And then I felt a tear. And then another. And before I knew it I was feeling the cleansing, healing, embracing warmth of a good cry. Where did this come from? Was it relief? Was it grief? Was it sadness at leaving the year's ultimate spiritual moment behind me? It was all of those and, no doubt, much more.
Upon reflection, rather than becoming mired in thought about the inevitable descent that follows a peak experience, it’s much more uplifting to be grateful for receiving this holy infusion in the first place, and to accept the challenge of sustaining it as best I can. With proper care and nourishment, may it be enough spiritual fuel to last the year.
CaringBridge Journal for Shira Ballon
Flying home from Chicago and a lovely visit with Shira, Marty, and of all people, Debbie! (Yes, it seems odd to "visit" my wife in Chicago, but she’s been there over two weeks now supporting Shira in so many ways—physically and emotionally above all. I don't question the importance of my lending some moral support on the day of Shira's first chemotherapy treatment. I also acknowledge that all the heavy lifting had been done before my arrival including, as I was en route, the surgical procedure to install the infusion port.
With that accomplished all of the truly challenging tasks of a long week were complete. The results of the pulmonary test and the PET scan were favorable. Not to diminish the significance of the first chemo, but Shira said that it was a much easier day than the one that preceded it. My impression of Swedish Covenant Hospital's infusion center was 100% favorable. Every single person from the receptionist to the oncologist to the nurses, the social worker, the art therapist, the cafeteria workers, and last but not least the massage therapist could not have been more pleasant, supportive, and competent.
It was a long day. The first infusion requires additional safeguards to assure the patient doesn't have an adverse reaction to the medicines. They placed Shira in a chair in a location that provided ample room for Marty, Debbie and me to be at Shira's side. We would take turns taking care of our own needs as well as Shira's (I walked to a nearby Greek restaurant to get her some chicken kebabs that she requested only to discover it was the place lampooned by SNL—"You lika da juice?")
It was comforting for Shira to hear the nurse’s comment that the port had been installed exceedingly well—with very little redness or swelling that is often the case. I suppose the highlight was the massage therapist giving us caregivers a rub as well as the patient!
After Shira's day in the chair the four of us managed to have a weekend film/food-a-thon, culminated by a sumptuous Fathers Day brunch that had me in a food coma until well into this flight! Marty’s hospitality and talent in the kitchen is beyond abundant.
I confess, waltzing in and out as I had the good fortune to do may not make me the most reliable witness to what has transpired and continues to. Sure, there were difficult moments for all of us. I wouldn't want to misstate the physical symptoms and emotional challenges. Those moments, however, seem to be obscured, at least for me, by Shira's courage and resilience, Marty's devotion, Debbie's selfless nursing/mothering, and the unending support of family and friends from all over.
Shira was feeling well enough to contemplate going to work for a bit on Monday. Debbie plans to return to Palo Alto on Tuesday (I think she misses her garden.) Parting will not be easy, but will be eased by the continued support from Shira's posse in Chicago. Brother Jake and sister Becca plan to be on hand for the next 2 infusions respectively, and then Debbie may return. Time will tell when the treatments give Shira relief from the debilitating symptoms of the lymphoma—soon, we all pray.
I have begun this journey before. That may seem discouraging, and it may be reassuring. I believe in cycles. I look at Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year in the fall, as an opportunity to begin anew, and I have often felt that the principles underlying that new beginning are applicable to every day. No less so to the days of springtime that also signal new beginnings. The Passover holiday, coming midway between one Rosh Hashanah and the next, a retelling of the birth of our people, is the ideal time to set forth on a new venture, and even a restart.
Five years ago at this time of the year I entered a medically supervised weight loss program. I spoke about how I wanted it to be a spiritual journey as much as a physical one. I managed to lose a lot of pounds, reaching the milestone of a "normal" BMI for about 20 minutes (literally). I felt I had arrived at the Promised Land, but that was an illusion. (I've come to consider the whole notion of arrival as an illusion—an important lesson going forward.) Even though I was part of a program that spoke a great deal about maintenance, their approach to it did not connect with me in a way that worked. I have managed a semblance of spiritual growth in these years, but my slow steady weight gain suggests that has not carried over into the physical plane.
So, how to begin again? That's not really the first question. The first question is whether to begin again. The answer to that comes to me when I step on the scale or try to wear some of the "skinny clothes" that I bought four and a half years ago. (There are of course the obvious health concerns that are, arguably, more critical than a particular number goal or a fashion statement). While some might look at the evidence and throw their hands up in despair recognizing the possible futility of it all, my response is, “Yes! Let’s try something else. Let’s do something different and expect different results. Let’s keep searching for that illusive and sustaining link between spirit and body.”
When I took my physical/spiritual journey, and when it seemed that I had actually accomplished my goal, I started writing a physical/spiritual self-help book. At the time, the metaphor of the Exodus seemed apt. We are all slaves to something. We may hesitate to lead ourselves to freedom, as did Moses. But with determination and divine help we can cross that Red Sea and sing a song of salvation. We can even take further steps to arrive at a Sinai moment when the revelation of how we want to live on this planet comes to us — creating, perhaps, our own Ten Commandments; building our own sanctuary in which to feel the divine presence; feeding on God-given sustenance (manna), taking not too much nor too little. The metaphors are all there, so maybe I’ve just been going through “forty years” of wandering. Like the Hebrews of old, I seem drawn back to my former life as a slave rather than to the arduous but promising journey that may lie ahead. For the Hebrews, and for myself in this time, this may be due to having an unrealistic notion that freedom was a “one and done” experience, or that it would be without its hardships. Freedom is not easy! It's just different. It takes continued vigilance, and in some ways is more challenging than mindless servitude. In the Torah an entire generation had to die before the nation could experience genuine transformation from slavery to freedom.
What must die in me to give birth to such change?
One answer to that question is to reset my relationship with food and my body. That brings us back to the earlier question--how to begin again. One suggestion I received comes in the form of a popular program called The Whole30. Popular programs in themselves seem problematic. While I haven’t fallen for every fad diet that has come along over the years, I have done enough of them to know better—especially the ones that say “this is not a diet, but a change in lifestyle.” So why try another? Am I Charlie Brown hoping Lucie will not pull the football away yet again? Perhaps. But it seems worth examining this systematic approach to discovering the effects that specific foods have on my body and my feeling of wellbeing.
I continue to look for the spiritual connection. The one I have chosen is to count the 30 days of this plan while simultaneously, according to tradition, counting the Omer, the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot, starting tomorrow on the second night of Passover. I have never successfully counted every one of these days. Is there a reason to assume that I will be able to do it now? Just add that imponderable to the mix. Will connecting these spiritual and physical journeys create a synergy that sustains them in a way that neither alone might accomplish? We’ll see. Certainly, declaring this, as I am doing now, raises the stakes. That self-imposed pressure may or may not be helpful. What may indeed be helpful is if you support me perhaps with some encouragement and especially by refraining from putting off-plan temptations or other stumbling blocks before me.
After the 30 days of refraining from sugar, alcohol, grains, legumes, and dairy there are additional days in which to undergo a methodical process of reintroducing these foods to discover how my body reacts to them. Wouldn’t it be something if I concluded that process at the end of the 49 days, just as we arrive at Shavuot, and that and it results in my having a “Sinai moment” and a revelation of a new set of commandments by which I choose to live? That would really be something!
I sat, chanting healing words at the bedside of my buddy, Greg. Later, I looked around the dining room in which his family had set up his hospital bed. Even though there was much in the field of vision to take in, little of it registered. Oh, I know there was some sort of artwork on the wall. There must have been furniture and lighting and drapes and carpeting. But I couldn't tell you what any of that looked like. On the other hand, I have a very clear image of Greg, his thin body, listing involuntarily to his right as he lay back on the tilted mattress. I found myself drawn to the appearance of his teeth when he occasionally bared them. It almost seemed like a brief smile. Maybe it was less of a response to pleasure or humor, and more likely a reflexive grimace. His teeth may be the only part of him that hasn’t withered in recent months. They are a beautiful reminder of who he still is, even as we try to resist grieving too soon the loss of the person so many of us already miss.
I suspect that my soul, in some ways perceived and continues to process this visit in a manner that defies my conscious understanding or explanation. Part of the reason for this may be due to my stubborn denial about the reality of the situation. At the same time, I'm not unaware of the implications of his return to his home from the hospital, having received no further treatment, and now under hospice care. We all know what that means. We don't know how much time will be allotted to Greg. (True, we don't know how much time is allotted to any of us.) And we have already started making tentative plans for his eventual memorial. Is that crass? I hope it's really just an expression of kindness, courage and love to give thought to how to honor a kind, courageous, and loving man as we all face what we would prefer not to face.
As I contemplate this day I reflect on my many blessings --
In synagogue, each Shabbat morning, the leader of our service asks us to say out loud some of the blessings for which we are grateful. We always hear some, but by no means the full flood of potential responses. It's not just that people are reticent to speak in public, although that may be a factor. I think that it can be hard to enumerate one's blessings. They are either as numerous as the stars, and thus impossible to grasp, or, perhaps, as happens to the stars in the light of day, we are mostly blind to them until darkness falls upon us. So on this day, a day in which I shared sadness and joy, disability and strength, grim resolve and abiding optimism — I am truly grateful to be alive, and to be among extraordinary people — people filled with energy and with love.
Greg reminds me of my brother Jeff, of blessed memory. When Jeff was ill and Greg was still the robust presence we all remember, the two of them met at my daughter's wedding. I don't know anyone else who spent as much time talking with Jeff that day as did Greg. Two compassionate souls — it must've been quite a conversation. In an unkind bit of irony, these two good men were each stricken by a similar brain cancer, and yet, lived what days they had as emissaries of love. I have often wondered why it seems to take a fatal diagnosis for people to be in a position to espouse love without being thought of as a little bit crazy. I continue to ask that question, and I continue to challenge myself to live up to the answer.