A gentleman of grace

Exactly seven years ago today, we gathered in this sanctuary to celebrate the occasion of Kyle Burnat becoming a bar mitzvah. It was a very chilly Saturday morning; in fact, the heating system was not functioning in the sanctuary. But I clearly remember Kyle that morning, his ever-positive demeanor and his infectious smile. Everything took place as planned and was completed by Kyle with his typical standard of excellence. Kyle performed masterfully. We celebrated his emerging manhood as Judaism requires and those of us assembled rejoiced in his achievement.

Every Jewish parent is required to give their children Hebrew names when they are born, as well as an English one. The Burnats chose Kyleâs Hebrew name wisely and it turned out to be more appropriate than they would ever realize. On his bar mitzvah day, I invoked God’s blessing on Kyle through his Hebrew name, Reuven Simcha. In English, those two names mean the following: “Behold, a son of Joy” is born to us. Kyle lived up faithfully to his name.

We come together on this Jan. 20 in quite a different mood. A tragedy beyond human understanding has robbed us of Kyle and three other young men. In a senseless moment of calamity, the lives of promising, talented and gifted youngsters were wiped out. The reality of the events of early last Friday morning is almost more than the mind can bear. Can any one of us imagine the pain and the sense of loss experienced by the parents of these young men? To you, Rita and Larry Burnat, to you, Lawson Burnat, please know that all of our attempts to comfort you are sincere and well-meaning. We do not know what to say in words, so please accept our physical presence as an expression of our deepest sympathy. We are here today to comfort you in your grief. We promise, as well, to walk with you as you move toward healing in the weeks ahead.

The tributes to Kyle which have been pouring in are clear evidence of his gifts and of the deep affection and respect with which others regarded him. I have known Kyle since he was about 5 years old. I had the most contact with him during his bar mitzvah year, at age 12, but I was also privileged to spend an hour with him just prior to his departure for college. I remember being touched by the fact that he had just stopped into my office to say hello.

I congratulated Kyle on his achievements, both on the athletic field and in the classroom. He was clearly embarrassed by my compliments and he downplayed, in every way that he could, the fact that he would be attending an Ivy League college. I remember breaking the ice by reassuring him that Yale was probably not even an accredited school. This evoked Kyle’s wonderful smile. I recall thinking to myself at that time: What a positive, lovely human being! There can be no greater compliment to a person than to say that when he leaves your presence, you feel better, even comforted. Kyle was just that kind of a person.

I, of course, for the past 14 years, only knew Kyle within the context of this congregation. The other things I knew about him were by reputation, and it was a sterling reputation to be sure. But every once in a while, I was privileged to see glimpses of those other parts of Kyle — his intense dedication to team, his wonderful mind, and, also, his playfulness. I saw, on a few occasions, Kyle as the country bumpkin, a role he sometimes played, and a role that had the power to endear a person to him even more.

Kyle was a gentleman. He knew how to act in any situation. He knew what was appropriate and he carried it forward with grace and dignity. We all are aware of the fact that Kyle recently completed a wonderful summer in Washington, D.C., working on the staff of Georgia’s senior senator, Zell Miller. Kyle flourished in that atmosphere, again, because of his savoir-faire. I believe that he would have made a great politician. His engaging personality and his conservative world view made him a man for this hour. I weep over the lost opportunities, over dreams unfulfilled and over aspirations that were not to be realized.

Because Kyle was so self-effacing, not everyone was aware of the depth and the breadth of his contacts. Paul Babst’s beautiful tribute for ESPN expresses this better than I. “Whenever we met up,” Paul writes, “He always wanted to hear about the sports stories we covered and the places we went. He rarely talked about himself. I would always ask how the team looked and how his game was coming along for the baseball season. He never bragged about being good enough to play college baseball, something most of us would love to be able to do.”

Kyle’s athletic activities date back to his earliest childhood and, at the same time, so does his grace and dignity as a sportsman. His dad tells me that Kyle was extremely competitive on the field, as any good athlete must be; and yet, his dad says that when he coached Kyle in Little League, Kyle would often come and ask him to take him out of the game so that others would have a chance to play.

Kyle was the team player par excellence. His dad, once again, says that “enjoyment of being with and competing with his teammates was enjoyed by him as much or more than the opportunity to compete.” The Woodward Academy and Yale University were to become the beneficiaries of Kyle’s skills, both on the field and off. The teams on which Kyle played excelled because of his natural gifts, but more important, they excelled because of his personality. He was a beloved and devoted friend. He served as a mentor to younger students. He was a remarkable combination of the competitive, the talented, and the most basic of human decency.

I speak to you now, his teammates and friends. It will be your obligation to keep Kyle’s memory alive by speaking of him often, by recalling shared times, and by rehearsing his humor. The painful memory of his death will be softened with the passage of time. If anyone would want you to move on with your lives, it would be Kyle. But at the same time, he would also want you to remember him and to allow him to inspire you, each and every day of your lives.



I want to conclude my tribute to Kyle with words from a poem, a poem which I have always loved and which only today takes on a special meaning and poignancy for me. The words are those of the British poet A.E. Housman, from a piece entitled, “To An Athlete Dying Young.”



The time you won your town the race

We chaired you through the market-place;

Man and boy stood cheering by,

At home we brought you shoulder-high.



Today, the road all runners come,

Shoulder-high we bring you home,

And set you at your threshold down,

Townsman of a stiller town.



Kyle Matthew Burnat, rest in peace. Be assured that we loved you and that we will remember you. According to Jewish tradition, “The memory of a righteous person is always counted for blessing.” Today, you are that righteous person.

Amen.

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