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"I leaned back in the water and let the sun soothe my soul; somehow I felt at home."
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Open to Hope - Click here to listen to a radio interview for "Open to Hope" - a non profit organization with the mission of helping people find hope after loss. .
A Gathering in Support of Israel and Peace, August 13, 2014. Click here to here to listen to "Reflection & Text Study: It is written in the Book of the Wars of Adonai, 'There will be love in the end.'" Click here to list to a prayer for Israel's soldiers, a prayer for healing, a prayer for Israel and a prayer for peace.
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Clcik here to watch a panel on Huffington Post Live - February 4, 2014 - on Untimely Death.
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Click here to listen to Rabbi Greyber and Rev Joe Harvard on Your Health Radio for their conversation on "Faith and Death" - August 2013
Click here to listen to Rabbi Greyber's conversation with NPR's Frank Stasio on The State of Things.
Click here to watch a panel on Huffington Post Live - December 18, 2012 - on Holiday Loss.
Click here and listen in to minutes 10 to 31 for the conversation for a conversation about Faith & Healing with Drs. Adam Goldstein and Cristy Page on "Your Health Radio."
Click here to listen to a talk given at the Rotary Club of Chapel Hill on June 1, 2012.

 

.08 OF A SECOND

Resh Lakesh, then a vagabond and a highway robber, once did an amazing dive which was witnessed by Rabbi Yochanan (who himself was swimming at the time).  Rabbi Yochanan declared:  “With strength like that you should be studying Torah!”
– Bava Metzia 84a
 

RABBINICAL SCHOOL, FALL 1997

 
We’ve been in rabbinical school for a few weeks now.  God is a demanding teacher.  Shacharit prayers, 7:30-8:30 A.M.  Mishnah class, 9:15-10:45 A.M.  Hebrew, 11 A.M.-12:15 P.M.  Bible, 1-2:30 P.M.  Mincha prayers, 2:45-3 P.M.  Beit Midrash study, 3-4:30 P.M.  Dinner, 6-7 P.M.  Evening class 7-9:30 P.M.
God is merciful.  No evening class tonight.  Pizza boxes strewn on the floor, we sit in a circle on the carpet of a small apartment.  We have come together to share our stories.  I am next.  I have a hard time explaining to people why I am studying to be a rabbi.  To people who have known me all my life, I imagine it seems as if I went to Israel a few years ago, saw a bright light, and was transformed into a deeply religious person.  To me, though, studying for the rabbinate today is only a natural extension of who I was before:  a swimmer.
 
The obligations of a parent to a son, according to the Talmud, are “to circumcise, redeem, teach him Torah, take a wife for him, and teach him a craft.”  And it adds, “to teach him to swim too” (Kiddushin 29a).  I think I had a medical circumcision in a hospital; I know I wasn’t “redeemed”, and my scientist dad certainly didn’t teach us the biblical parsha each week.  I’m married now but it wasn’t my parents who found my wife.  Did mom and dad teach me a craft?  Well, I am a rabbinical student but I think they’d admit that, if the rabbinate is a “craft”, then it’s one I chose for myself.  On the other hand, my parents did teach me to swim.
 

POTOMAC, MARYLAND – SUMMER 1979

 
Splat, splat, plop my feet.  Puddle, dodge left, head timer, dodge right.  It is an art, deck running.
 
I leap over the rope and bounce into an oversize lounge chair, wriggling my sweat pants over my wet skin.  Tall trees tower over our shady team area.  My big chair sinks into muddy grass.   It is cool outside.  I look up and gaze across the pool at a sign:  “Go Potomac!”  The letters are written with crumpled newspaper balls stuck into the chain-link fence surrounding our pool.
 
One of my earliest memories is fearfully gazing through the large windows overlooking the pool at the local JCC while my parents, brother, and sister swam.  Though I was too frightened to venture close to the water, my parents persisted in bringing me with them to the pool  It wasn’t until my brother and sister came home with ribbons and medals from a swim meet that I decided swimming just might be for me, too.  I wasn’t good much else and is sure felt good seeing my name on a First Place ribbon.
 
“Daniel!  Max!  Thomas! Time to report.  Over here!”
 
A booming voice calls me into action.  I scramble into my flip-flops and as soon as I hop into place in front of Coach Holden’s tall legs, Thomas and Max jump into line next to me.
 
Holden squats down in between us.  At eight years old, we still have to look up to see his face.  “Okay guys, your event is being called.  Go fast!”
 
He hands us our cards, stands up, and disappears from view.
 
Daniel Greyber.  Eight-and-under.  Twenty-five-meter freestyle.  Lane 4.
 
Dodge left, right.  Splat! Plop!  I jump into the low chair behind lane 4 and clap my knees together.  The timers stand in a clump at the other end of the pool.  The swimmers from the last race climb out of the pool and the water calms down and starts to shine.
 
“County record,” I whisper to myself as the starter walks toward this end of the pool.  
 
BANG!
 
I spring off the wall, duck my head under my arms and do a lean dive down the middle of the lane.  My body shudders.  The water is like a charge of electricity.  I start kicking and spinning my arms at will.  When I take a breath, I see arms waving and people jumping through my red tint goggles.  Go-go-go-go-go.  Kick-kick-kick.  Five-four-three-two-one.  Smash.  I hit the wall, hop out of the water, and run to Holden.
 
“What was my time?”
 
“16.68.”
 
“Holden, I got a best time!  I won.”
  
Holden says nothing to me.  He clicks his watch twice.  Then he says to the assistant coach, “Max 23.22.  Thomas 25.23.”
 
I try again.  “I got a best time!”
 
Now he looks down.  “Daniel, I want to talk to you.”  He walks away from the team toward the fence.
 
I follow him away from the crowd.  My face feels red.
 
“What did I do wrong?”  I say softly.
 
He squats down and puts his index finger over his lips.  “Shhh. Daniel, you won the race and there’s nothing wrong with that.  But I want to talk to you about the way you did it.  When you win, other people lose, right?”  
 
“Yeah.”
 
“They swim just as hard as you do, right?  Just not as fast.  Right?”
 
“Yeah.”
 
“You like it when people say, ‘way to go’ after you swim, right?”
 
“Ye-es,” I peep.
 
“When I say ‘good job’ or ‘way to go’ I say it for two things.”
 
As if he hears the “huh?” in my mouth, he goes on. “Let me explain.  One reason is because you won.  But the other is because you tried hard.  If you swam a best time but didn’t win, I’d still say ‘way to go’.  So don’t you think that everyone who swam the race deserves a handshake or a ‘good job’?”
 
“I guess so.”
 
“Don’t be ashamed, little buddy.”  Holden reaches his long arm around my back and squeezes my shoulder.  “You don’t have to swim slow.  Just remember:  I want you to win, but it’s not all about getting first.  I want you to respect everyone in the water.  Just show me you’ll remember that next time.”
 
“Okay Holden, you’ll be proud of me.”
 
He stood up and messed up my hair.  “We’re gonna need a great swim out of you for the end relay.  Go get’m little guy.”
 
“Here we go Dan-iel, here we go!” APPLAUSE!
 
“Here we go Dan-iel, here we go!” APPLAUSE!
 
I curl my toes around the white stone edge of Potomac pool; raise my arms straight out in front of my pudgy, tummy, and crouch my legs, ready to spring.  The meet is riding on this last relay and we are behind.  We have to win.  My hands are open, palms turned outward, thumbs touching each other.  They form a window so I can follow my teammate swimming toward me down the lane.
 
“Here we go Dan-iel, here we go!” APPLAUSE!
 
The window drops lower.
 
“Go Daniel!  You can do it!” my mom yells from behind me.
 
“Go Daniel, Go Greyber!” screams my dad.
 
I swing my arms up and over my head like a Ferris wheel and leap off the wall.  ICE.  Cold charges my body all over.  My arms spin through the water.  One-two-three-four-five-six-breath right.
 
“Here we go Dan-iel, here we go!”
 
One-two-three-four-five-six – I sneak a breath to the right and peak at the splash from the next lane.  I can get him!  One-two-three- flip turn!  I peak over again as I push off the wall.  I’m at his knees.  One-two-three-breath.  I’m at his waist!  One-two-three-four-breath.  I see his shoulders and a mass of waving arms and jumping bodies.  I hear a roar – GOOO!  Head down.  My arms churn the water but my muscles feel heavy and hot.  We are head-to-head at the flags.  I can do it!  I remember Holden’s words: “Swim through the wall!”  Three-two-one – smash.  I hit the wall
 
My teammates jump way up in the air.  Yaay! Grey-ber!  Grey-ber!”
 
A burst of applause.
 
First!
 
I push myself halfway out of the water and, out of the corner of my eye, I see the other boy.  I drop back in the water and wait for the other relays to finish.
 
“Good race.”
 
I reach over the lane rope and shake hands.  I climb out and look over to the team area.  Standing above my parents and kids is Holden, cheering with two thumbs up.  I raise my arms above my head and give him two thumbs up.  He lets out a big laugh and yells again, “Way to go, Daniel!”  I turn around and join my cheering friends.
 
We all hope, dream, crave for a moment like that to happen to us.  If not in the NBA or the Olympics, maybe the little league game would be enough.  
 
To hear your name chanted.
 
To come from behind.
 
To win.
 

NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY, SEPTEMBER 1992

 
Our team has gathered around a large table in the conference room overlooking the pool.  We are big guys, too big for the chairs around the table.  We’re in jeans and Tee-shirts, itching to get changed.  Coach insists: “You can’t get somewhere if you don’t know where you want to go.  I want each of you to have a successful year, but in order to do that, you have to tell me and tell yourselves what that will mean.  Before we swim one lap, I want you to write down your goals for this season.”
 
I know coach is right; I need to do this.  I’ve been through this before.  Everybody starts out right, getting to bed early, working hard in practice.  But after a few months, you’re tired of the routine.  I know myself.  When I hear the clock radio go off at 5:15 A.M. and my muscles still ache from last night’s practice, I’ll find an excuse to go back to sleep unless I have a clear vision of what I want to accomplish this year.
 
I close my eyes and lay my head down on the table.  I’ve got to be able to see my goals, to hear them, and taste them.  Grey-ber!  Grey-ber! APPLAUSE! It’s been a long time since a crowd chanted my name.  I want that feeling again.
 
I open my eyes and scribble across the pad: Anchor the 400 freestyle relay at Big Tens: Win the championship for the team!
 
Just one more time, I want to be a hero.
 

THE POOL, DECEMBER 1992

 
The metal beams slow to a stop and shift direction.  I am lying on my back, sliding back down towards the wall.  My feet hit it and I PUSH off again.  Underneath me is a towel soaking up sweat from my back.  Coach calls it the sled: I lie on a small padded surface that slides up and down on a slanted steel shaft and do hundreds upon hundreds of jumps to strengthen my legs.  The grating of metal-on-metal echoes in the emptiness.  I close my eyes and play the video in my head.  Grey-ber.   APPLAUSE!  My legs are heavy.  I am sliding down again.  Push off the wall through the water.  Drive my legs up and down.  My friends have gone home and I am still here…They fear the pressure.  I crave it…I glance at the clock.  I’ve done ten minutes more than usual.  I stop.  The towel is soaked.  I climb down but can’t control the shaking in my legs.  I hobble alone toward the locker room to change.  The smell of chlorine wafts off the pool and sweat drips off my nose into my mouth.  I taste victory.
 

BIG TEN CONFERENCE SWIMMING CHAMPIONSHIPS, FEBRUARY 1993

 
I stand on a large white starting block high over the pool, my toes rubbing on its gritty surface.  Goggle straps wrap snugly into the skin of my smooth, bald head.  Clear plastic lenses press tightly around my eyeballs.  I look over to the next lane.  My opponent is a muscular six-foot-seven shaggy-haired mammoth named Len.  He crouches at the edge of the starting block and extends his long fingers across the water, preparing for the relay exchange.  I am clearly overmatched.
 
I stand at the back of the starting block and swing my hands in front of me.  Out of the side of my eye, I see the crowd rise in anticipation.  My team’s deep loud chant floats over the water in front of me:
Here we go Grey-ber, here we go! APPLAUSE!
 
The air is humid and nervous.  The water dance with bright stadium lights.  Hard rhythms pulse in my head.  I let out something like a growl and feel the power of bubbling anger flow through my toned legs and torso.  I expel air forcefully from my chest and swing my arms over my head.  As they start to flow forward past my hips I inhale deeply, take two quick steps and leap off the block, soaring high over the water.
 
There is no youthful innocence, no joy and laughter – every run through the early morning darkness, every push-up and crunch, every moment that makes up a season’s worth of work rides on this moment.  I know this man only as the Enemy.  I pledge every ounce of strength in my soul to beating him.
 
I hear my mother and father cheering me in my youth.  I feel the cradling embrace of my girlfriend at school.  I remember the trust of my teammates.  I yearn for the passionate beauty of every solitary, lonely athlete and pray for their companionship in this moment.  I summon the strength of every failure and redemption; I reach for all of it in order to take down the beast who looms in the next lane.  He is Len Rayer, holder of my fears, the obstacle to living a childhood dream, the holder of who I am: the athlete who comes through in the clutch, the hero…I spring off the block and reach for the golden ring.
 
The first two lengths are perfect.  I glide strong and confident.  I pull with quick automatic strokes.  My body has rehearsed; it runs on autopilot.  I am slightly ahead as we enter the second turn.  I push off the wall and extend my lead.  Rayer makes his move and pulls even just as we head into the third and final turn.  The video in my head begins to play.  I begin the somersault and…am sliding down…PUSH!  My legs explode powerfully off the wall.  I am ahead again.  I hear a roar from above the water.  I believe.  The crowd rises to its feet to bear witness.  A fierce battle.  A struggle of spirits.
 
I have rehearsed this last length a thousand times.  Four strokes, right-left-right-left. Breathe right.  I see his head behind me at my chest.  I believe.  Four more strokes, right-left-right-left.  Breathe right.  I see his head behind me at my shoulders.  I believe.  Seven strokes to the wall.  Right-left-right-left.  “Swim through the wall!”  Right-left and right reach to the wall.  The magic moment I have dreamed a thousand times.
 
Fingertips touch timing pads.  Cameras flash.  Digits click on the scoreboard display.  I rip my goggles off with my left hand.  I shift my body around in the water to see the scoreboard at the other end of the pool.  My legs churn strongly beneath me.  My fist clenches, ready for victory.  But God has not seen my video.  The number “2” sits next to my name.  Len Rayer has touched me out by eight one-hundredths of a second and I am sliding down…down.
 
I drape back in the water and stare at the ceiling.  The beams are still.  I sink slowly beneath the surface.  The waters envelop my chest, my shoulders, my eyes.  Len Rayer can only hold his right hand up in the air as his teammates slap it and jump in jubilation on the deck above.  My right hand has found the lane rope.  His left hand rests on it.  Both lay lifeless on the lane rope that divides us.  I cling with my left hand to the deck above.  Len Rayer has been taken to the limit, spent of everything.  He is barely able to mutter “nice race.”  The sound echoes between us.  The spotlight does not shine in our cave of dark exhaustion.  We struggle to climb from the pool, to return to the world from a hellish descent, tumbling with our fears and hearts and dreams intertwined.  We shake hands but there is only winner.
 
I fall into the warm down pool, stunned.  Too stunned to slap in anger at the pool.  Too paralyzed to scream under water in frustration.  A dream ripped from my grasp.  I collapse into a pit of my fears, reeling without a hold.  Choke.  Nice guy.  Loser.  “I want you to win, but it’s not all about getting first.  I want you to respect everyone in the water.”  Holden’s words sat spurned, ignored, in a distant part of my mind.  We shake hands.  I had learned to respect others.  But there is only one winner.  I had not learned to respect myself. 
 

WORLD MACCABIAH GAMES, SUMMER 1993

 
I sit on the carpet at the foot of my bed in the Goldar Hotel.  My roommate is a tall and lanky, blond Californian named Dan.  We are both seeded first for our events tonight at the Maccabiah finals.  Familiar butterflies float on the soft light of mid-afternoon and settle comfortably to dance in the pit of our stomachs.  Old questions haunt me: Would I win the big race, or would I choke?  Would I come through in the clutch?  Am I a winner?  A loser?  On other afternoons like this, fear has consumed me.  Yet today Dan and I are able to stretch and talk, and even laugh.  Fear still looms in the dark corners of our selves, because fears do not change; we do.
The experience at Big Tens had changed me.  After I lost to Len Rayer, I had fallen into the warm down pool, sunk twenty feet to the bottom, laid down as if on a bed, and closed my eyes.   I felt as if swimming cast me out of itself.
 
How strange then that that night, deep on the pool floor, I had felt my soul rising to the surface, floating high above the sport.  I had yearned to fly to the heavens, but maybe I had asked more of the pool than it had to give.  Swimming had given me glorious, white-hot, promethean moments, moments that masked themselves in the divine.  But those moments were ultimately only a shadow of what I yearned for.  I had yearned for ultimate meaning.  
 
We all need a sense of the divine in our lives, a sense that what we do on a day-to-day basis has ultimate importance.  Though I didn’t know it at the time, losing to Len Rayer was a blessing.  The cheer of the crowd had become my idol.  If I had won, I might have spent many years or even a lifetime pursuing ultimate fulfillment in the gleaming moments of sports.  When I lost, I learned that I am worth more than the cheer of the crowd, the adulation of teammates.  Finally I saw myself as more than a swimmer, more than a teammate, more than the person I thought myself to be.  
 
God has many names.  Perhaps one of them is “More Than.”
 
I warm up for a while in the Tel Aviv pool and then spend time talking with my mom and my uncle and aunt and cousin who have come to see me swim.  I sit with the U.S. team and cheer on my teammates.  My race approaches.  I walk to the starting area, say a prayer, and prepare for the start.
 
“In lane 4 from the United States, Daniel Greyber…”
 
I remember very little of the race now.  It went well, and as I reached back for the wall, there was no hush in anticipation for the results.  I had won by plenty.  I pumped my fist in the air and looked toward my team and family and the Hebrew signs of Israel.  I leaned back in the water and let the sun soothe my soul; somehow I felt at home.  I shook hands with my opponents and climbed out of the pool in the warm evening air.  As I hugged my teammates and embraced my family, I also knew that even if I had lost, it would have been OK.
 
 
 
This essay originally appeared in Dancing on the Edge of the World: Jewish Stories of Faith, Inspiration and Love edited and collected by Miryam Glazer, PhD. Lowell House, 2000, and is reproduced with permission from Miryam Glazer, PhD.