December 8, 2019

Who’s Older Now?

Eyal Sherman Photo courtesy of Rabbi Erez Sherman

Here is a rabbinic secret. Each year before Yom Kippur, rabbis send an e-mail, asking a simple question: “Has anyone compiled a list of notable deaths for the past year?” The impressive list for 2019 includes architect I.M. Pei, journalist and author Cokie Roberts, business magnate Barron Hilton, businessman and former presidential candidate Ross Perot and actor Peter Fonda.

But two years ago, as this email appeared in my inbox, I had no choice but to respond to my fellow rabbis that I had just suffered the loss of my brother, Eyal, a quadriplegic for 32 years of his 36 years. Eyal was diagnosed with a brain tumor at age 4, and a subsequent stroke had left him completely paralyzed from the neck down, yet intellectually intact. He was a quadriplegic for 32 years of his 36 years on Earth. He graduated from high school and Syracuse University with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts, after 10 years of study.

The morning of this annual email, my response was: “After losing my brother at the age of 36 during these ten days of awe, I have come to understand that every death is a notable death.”

After hitting the send button, I quickly noticed my mistake. I should have written: “Every life is a notable death.” For while we focus on the day we were born and the day we die, what is more crucial is the fact we were noticed. Did we live lives well enough that someone would say we, too, were notable?

Two years ago, I sat shivah during the 10 days of repentance. Last year, I observed the first yahrzeit of my brother. This year is different. Eyal died on my birthday. He was 36 years old. This past week, I again celebrated my birthday — but I turned 37 and he remained 36. My entire life, Eyal was 17 months older. I could never catch up to him — in years and in wisdom. He would enter middle school while I was stuck in elementary school. He would enter college while I was stuck in high school. 

How could it be that this week I am 37 and he is 36? For weeks, I did not want to celebrate my birthday, tell people my new age or acknowledge the bittersweetness of the day.

For more than two decades, I had the honor of sharing Eyal’s life story with the world. I spoke to my classmates, my congregants, youth groups, colleges and faith-based organizations. Yet, in loss, I had shifted my focus. I now shared Eyal’s story out of memory, out of fear the world would forget his life, that his accomplishments would go unnoticed. Each day, I have promulgated his life: the beautiful art he created with his mouth stick, family pictures posted on social media and poems he painstakingly wrote on the computer with his assistive technological chin switch. There have been many tears, and there have been many smiles as children learned Eyal’s story and told me their own challenges they have overcome, as adults seek inspiration from our family, our community, our story.

My father, Rabbi Charles Sherman, teaches in his book, “The Broken and the Whole: Discovering Joy After Heartbreak,” we must have the ability to laugh and cry; two feelings that must not be mutually exclusive.

One of Eyal’s paintings

In fact, he taught me you can laugh and cry at the same time. Last week, I lit a birthday candle on a cake my wife and children gave to me. This week, I will light a yahrzeit candle to continue to celebrate all Eyal brought to me, our siblings, our parents and so many who never met him but know what he contributed to God’s Earth. I turned 37, but Eyal will always be my older brother, guiding me to do right, do good and to keep living a notable life.

As we are about to enter our synagogues for 25 hours in deep contemplation and prayer, I think of who will be sitting in front of me: the newly widowed, the recently married bride and groom, expectant parent or the freshly divorced. We all sit in the same pews together, reciting the same words — one year older, at different points in our lives. Each of these individuals seeks to be noticed — by themselves, by one another and by God.

On Yom Kippur, we bare our fragments of brokenness, unhidden beneath the surface. We wear white and fulfill the biblical mandate to afflict our souls, without any water or food. Each of us arrives with a new normal from the year that has passed — some with absence and some with presence.

But today, we do not hide. We stand in the present — raw, vulnerable, our entire selves, as the stories of our lives are read and no page missed.

Two years ago, my brother died. On my list, it was a notable death. But in reality, for 36 years, I was given the gift of a notable life.

This week, as I celebrated my 37th birthday, I laughed and I cried. I cried for all that will not be as I turn a year older, at the deep hole in my heart, at the opportunities I will never experience growing older with Eyal. And I laughed, knowing each year, my children will hear the stories of Uncle Eyal that I experienced; that their friends will notice how they treat others with disabilities; how they notice Eyal’s paintings hanging in our home and in our synagogue; how they have a softer heart because of Eyal’s notable life.

Ribono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe, I pray someone sees us crying; someone takes a good look at our faces and holds us as we share the stories of our lives. I pray someone sees us laugh again, turning our robes into sack cloths of joy. For when we allow ourselves to be noticed, our stories begin to be written in the Book of Life.

Gmar chatimah tovah.

A year of comfort, a year of peace, a year of joy.


Rabbi Erez Sherman is a rabbi at Sinai Temple.