Akiva Herzfeld is an alumnus of Wexner Graduate Fellowship Class XVI and and a graduate of YCT Rabbinical School. He is the rabbi of Congregation Shaarey Tphiloh in Portland, Maine, email@example.com
When the angel of death came to take away the life of Shloime Feivel ben Rav Moishe Ahrun, Sid Levine, Sid fought him off with a smile, a few old Jewish jokes, and with a needle and thread. Sid was a Mainer. Like his father, he worked as a tailor in the old port of Portland, Maine. He collected jokes, and spoke some Yiddish and Gaelic to get along with his Jewish and Irish clientele. He knew how to patch a garment, and also how to extend his colored quilt of life for extra time, an extra year, a few months, weeks, and a few more days.
Except for a few caring cousins, he was the only immediate family left for his older sister, Bettina Levine, 93 years old. We needed Sid for our minyan at shul. He was our tenth man. Sid was the first to arrive, and always dependable. He would walk in exactly a half hour early, telling jokes and sharing stories until start time.
When Sid had only a few hours left to live, I went to visit him in his apartment. We sat on his couch, and on his color television set from the 1960s there was a football game playing. It was the playoffs, Ravens vs. the Chiefs.
“Rabbi” he said to me, “it’s time to punt.” It was first down in the game. “What do you mean?” I asked. “Nothing works. I can’t move,” Sid said. “It’s time to give the ball to someone else. See what they can do with it.”
I thought then and now that this was a powerful metaphor. I value this idea of grabbing the ball and living life as a ball carrier, with a great sense of responsibility and duty. The idea that punting can be seen as a form of sharing the ball, rather than giving up, I think is an artful and beautiful description of that play.
I don’t think anyone told Sid that he was the ball carrier. He was just one of the minyan men, but he imagined himself as carrying the ball, and ran with it. When he was stopped from moving forward any further, Sid shared his sense of duty and responsibility with others.
In his final act of punting, Sid taught me that the leaders of our community may be carrying the ball, even when they don’t have a title to it. The quiet devotion to Jewish life, exemplified by Sid, living quietly with humility and a powerful sense of duty, is an act of leadership that inspires me in ways that leaders with big names and grand titles do not.