Friendship, Respect and the Power of Choices

by: Esther Tarkieltaub MA. Ed

The students of Rabbi Akiva died during the period of Sefirah because they did not conduct themselves with respect for one another. After the passing of the first students, the remaining students did not begin treating each other with the respect they deserved. Because of their failure to give respect, the students were not only punished, but they missed an opportunity to do “teshuva” – or repent – for this failing. At this important time of year, it is critical that we evaluate the relationship between friendship and respect.

It is my strong personal belief that during the period of Sefirah, we as parents and educators need to instill in our students love for one another and teach them the importance of recognizing and respecting each other’s differences. No matter how difficult or challenging a child may seem, every child deserves respect from family, teachers and peers. “Be friendly, not mean!” should be a motto in our homes and schools. I believe it goes without saying that we need firmly implemented zero-tolerance policies for bullying and hurtful exclusion as their effects on a child can be horrific.

As an educator, I feel it is worth relating a story about the power of showing care and respect for another child.

At a fundraising dinner for a school that serves children with learning disabilities, the father of one student delivered a speech that would never be forgotten by all who attended. After extolling the school and its dedicated staff, he posed a question:

“When not interfered with by outside influences, everything nature does is done with perfection. Yet my son, Shay, cannot learn things as other children do. He cannot understand things as other children do. Where is the natural order of things in my son?”

The audience was stilled by the query.

The father continued…

“I believe that when a child like Shay who is mentally and physically disabled comes into the world, an opportunity to realize true human nature presents itself, and it comes in the way other people treat that child.’

Then he told the following story:

“Shay and I had walked past a park where some boys Shay knew were playing baseball. Shay asked, ‘Do you think they’ll let me play?’ I knew that most of the boys would not want someone like Shay on their team, but as a father I also understood that if my son were allowed to play, it would give him a much-needed sense of belonging and some confidence to be accepted by others in spite of his handicaps.

Not expecting much, I approached one of the boys on the field and asked if Shay could play. The boy looked around for guidance and said, ‘We’re losing by six runs and the game is in the eighth inning. I guess he can be on our team and we’ll try to put him in to bat in the ninth inning….’

Shay struggled over to the team’s bench and, with a broad smile, put on a team shirt. I watched with a small tear in my eye and warmth in my heart. The boys saw my joy at my son being accepted. In the bottom of the eighth inning, Shay’s team scored a few runs but was still behind by three.

In the top of the ninth inning, Shay put on a glove and played in the right field. Even though no hits came his way, he was obviously ecstatic just to be in the game and on the field, grinning from ear to ear as I waved to him from the stands.

In the bottom of the ninth inning, Shay’s team scored again.

Now, with two outs and the bases loaded, the potential winning run was on base and Shay was scheduled to be next at bat.

At this juncture, would they let Shay bat and give away their chance to win the game?

Surprisingly, Shay was given the bat. Everyone knew that a hit was all but impossible because Shay didn’t even know how to hold the bat properly, much less connect with the ball.

However, as Shay stepped up to the plate, the pitcher recognized that the other team was putting winning aside for this moment in Shay’s life. He moved in a few steps to lob the ball in softly so Shay could at least make contact.

The first pitch came and Shay swung clumsily and missed.

The pitcher again took a few steps forward to toss the ball softly towards Shay. As the pitch came in, Shay swung at the ball and hit a slow ground ball right back to the pitcher.

The game would now be over. The pitcher picked up the soft grounder and could have easily thrown the ball to the first baseman.

Shay would have been out and that would have been the end of the game.

Instead, the pitcher threw the ball right over the first baseman’s head, out of reach of all his team mates.

Everyone from the stands and both teams started yelling, ‘Shay, run to first! Run to first!’

Never in his life had Shay ever run that far, but he made it to first base. He scampered down the baseline, wide-eyed and startled.

Everyone yelled, ‘Run to second, run to second!’ Catching his breath, Shay awkwardly ran towards second, gleaming and struggling to make it to the base.

By the time Shay rounded towards second base, the right fielder had the ball. …the smallest guy on their team who now had his first chance to be the hero for his team.

He could have thrown the ball to the second-baseman for the tag, but he understood the pitcher’s intentions so he, too, intentionally threw the ball high and far over the third-baseman’s head.

Shay ran toward third base deliriously as the runners ahead of him circled the bases toward home.

All were screaming, ‘Shay, Shay, Shay, all the way Shay’

Shay reached third base because the opposing shortstop ran to help him by turning him in the direction of third base, and shouted, ‘Run to third!

Shay, run to third!’

As Shay rounded third, the boys from both teams, and the spectators, were on their feet screaming, ‘Shay, run home! Run home!’

Shay ran to home, stepped on the plate, and was cheered as the hero who hit the grand slam and won the game for his team.”

“That day,” said the father softly with tears now rolling down his face, “the boys from both teams helped bring a piece of true love and humanity into this world.”

Shay didn’t live to see another summer. He died that winter, having never forgotten the feeling of being the hero. By making some simple but powerful choices, the boys who let Shay join that baseball game became true heroes.

The lesson that we learn from the students of Rabbi Akiva is one that we must carry in our daily lives. During Sefira, we must learn about and focus on the importance of treating one another with respect. As a social skills coach and social thinking provider working with schools, parents and children, I have a tool box of activities and suggestions to help educators and parents in the area of helping children develop and maintain friendships. I also run on going social skills groups designed to empower children with the skills they need to succeed – AIMS Arts In Motion for Success. To learn more contact me at:

etlearningconnections@gmail.com or 773-807-1083.

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