Thursday, January 27, 2011

Tribute to My Brother

Weatherly Heights Baptist Church
Huntsville, Alabama
Monday, January 24, 2011

At Jeffrey’s 60th birthday party I read the single poem that I am most proud of writing. It’s a poem that Jeff loved as well, and I think you will see why. It expresses the admiration and the love of a little boy for his big brother, and the wistful yearning for deeper connection with his brother that the boy felt later in life.


He had a Schwinn Roadmaster
the kind with the fat tank
along the crossbar
that held batteries and
had a little round chrome button
to sound the horn

Some mornings
he let me sit sideways
along that crossbar
he seemed so big and strong
to pedal for the two of us
as we headed for the
Chestnut Street School­
a first-grader and
a big sixth-grader

That was the last time we were going
in the same direction at
the same time
the last time we were on
the same path

We’ve traced one another’s
footsteps here and there
crossed paths on other occasions
often out of synch
going to or coming from
different places

There were places
           of learning
           of worship
           of recreation
           of work
           of living­
a cat’s cradle
of our travels
           our quests
through space and time

How glorious
to recall
a September morning
when we were going
the same way

I stand here today not only with gratitude for that September morning, but with eternal gratitude that in the years that followed the writing of this poem, and especially in the last two and a half years, Jeff and I made the time to consciously walk the same path at the same time.
No greater example of this was the “home and away” visits to one another’s spiritual retreat centers. In the summer of 2005 I asked Jeff if I could join him for his annual foray to the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina where he would meet with colleagues for a week of study and fellowship.  It was a treat to spend time with him driving through the wooded highways, or sitting shoulder to shoulder in morning prayers, or taking in a scholarly lecture. Best of all was just hanging out on the porch at night with an array of snacks and beverages, chatting with Jeff and his rabbi friends.
In October of 2009, with both his speech and his walking somewhat compromised, I nervously asked him if he would consider coming with me to a Jewish Men’s retreat—at a place in the Berkshire Mountains of Connecticut that I have come to love as a spiritual refuge. I can’t remember why I was so hesitant and unsure, because Jeff accepted the invitation at once. We met in New York City, celebrated his 67th birthday with Ann Lois and other family members, and then the two of us headed up the Hudson Valley to camp.

As  he did everywhere, Jeff instantly became a beloved and treasured member of this ad hoc community of fifty men. I really don’t recall that either of us did anything so special, but it was ironically gratifying to discover that within this group of men who had gathered in search of virtual brotherhood, two actual brothers would be so greatly admired for simply being there with and for one another. 
The single moment that I will most treasure occurred during the Sabbath morning service. Quite unexpectedly I was summoned to come forward to carry the Torah around and through the congregation before it was to be read. As is the custom, as I passed each man, he would take the fringes of his prayer shawl and touch the sacred scroll, then touch the cloth to his lips and kiss it. When I reached Jeff, in addition to touching the Torah and kissing it, he touched my forehead as well and drew the fringes to his lips with a kiss.                                                                  
How glorious to recall an October morning when we were going the same way as brothers!
In August of 2008, Jeff had been given what some considered a cruel and tragic “death sentence” but he didn’t seem to look at it that way. For him it was a chariot ride—a golden chariot drawn by winged horses—sent from heaven for his final ascent. He would savor the ride with such appreciation of his days, that he invited everyone along the way—friends and family and even strangers—to climb aboard and share the sheer joy of being alive. For two and a half years we all were on the same path—a path of hope, a path of faith, and most of all, a path of love. My brother shared every mile of his journey with every one of us. As sad as we are to see him reach his final destination, we all rejoice in the treasured gifts that he bestowed along the way.
The last time I saw him, I pulled up a chair to sit close as he chatted with great animation late into the night, well past his normal bedtime. He asked to study the Twenty-third Psalm.
“What does it mean,” he probed the Hebrew text, “Adonai ro-ee, lo echsar. (The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.)?” “...[people] say they know this, but none of them [really know] any of it!”
Lo echsar! (I shall not want!) Lo echsar! Lo echsar! he kept exclaiming.
He wanted us to know that he felt the guiding hand of the shepherd and that he was lacking for nothing. It was an amazing teaching from a man barely able to make his simplest thoughts understood. It was a final declaration of faith—as far as I know, his final sermon. In studying the Twenty-third Psalm, as Jeff requested, I discovered these words of Rabbi Harold Kushner who says that part of the psalm’s message is our ability to “make God look good by the way we live our lives so that others will be inspired to follow us and walk in God’s ways.” 
Jeff made God look very very good. Jeff was an inspiration. Jeff’s cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy followed Jeff all the days of his life. Rabbi Jeffrey Lewis Ballon, harav Yisrael Lev ben haRav Shimon, my brother, Jeff shall dwell in the House of the Lord and in our hearts forever.

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