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A Perfect Strike: From One Generation to the Next

The following is a text version of Rabbi Steve Schwartz's sermon from the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah, 5780:

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 to 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. Then the rest of the family family – the woman's children and her grandchildren togethe - began to say the kaddish.

Let me give you another scenario — a baby naming. A beautiful baby girl is 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. It is not unusual to give a newborn the name of a beloved family member. But what is unusual is that the baby's namesake was not only alive but 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. So too the idea of naming a baby after a living relative was considered to be forbidden. But more and more, I see grandchildren recite kaddish for their grandparents, and more and more, I see babies named after living relatives, usually great grandparents.  

The nature of the relationship between grandchildren and grandparents has changed in the last quarter-century. There was a time when you didn't get to know your grandparents. Before you were a bar or bat mitzvah, they were often already gone. But today, people who are 30, 40, or even 50 years old 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. That deep connection leads grandchildren to 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 Yastrzemski. Often just called Yaz, Yaztremski had a 23-year career in Major League Baseball, was selected as an All-Star 18 times, won seven Gold Gloves playing the outfield, had more than 3,000 hits, 400 home runs, and, in 1967 had one of the greatest seasons in baseball history, winning the Triple Crown by hitting .326 with 44 home runs and 121 RBI. Those of you who are not baseball fans, I ask for your forgiveness for all the statistics. That is all a long way of saying that Carl Yaztremski was one of the greatest baseball players of all time.

His grandson Mike Yaztremski has a long way to go to catch up to his grandfather. This year is Mike's rookie season in the Majors, playing for the San Francisco Giants. Young Mike is having a good season – hitting .267 with 20 home runs, mostly batting leadoff. Now those are not Carl Yaztremski numbers, but they are nothing to sneeze at.

That is the background. Here is the story:

About two 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 home runs, that Mike hit his 20th. The last time a Yaztremski had hit a home run 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 fourth 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, and the grandson crouched behind home plate. Carl Yastrzemski doesn't spend much time these days throwing a baseball – after all, he is 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 v'dor indeed.

One last story for you this morning: 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 as 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. She told me she hoped those things would be important to me too. That conversation changed my life. In the days and 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.  

Sat, July 4 2020 12 Tammuz 5780