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Rabbi Marc E. Berkson - Rosh Hashanah - 2nd Day - 2008/5769

Next Year

Baseball-Autumn-Rosh Hashanah? As a Cubs fan and, yes, now as a growing Brewers fan, baseball and spring and Pesach surely made far more sense. The notion that either team would be involved in any autumn games of meaning was something far easier to believe in April than the harsh reality usually delivered every September. Still, a peculiar affinity has long existed between the boys of summer and the people of the book. While some still insist that Abner Doubleday created baseball, many know that baseball was part of God’s original plan. You know all the old jokes about “In the big inning.” But the deeper hint comes from a verse in Exodus foretelling Hank Aaron’s prodigious feats: “Aaron stretched out his hand with his rod, and smote the dust of the earth … ”

Still, one can only marvel at the particular affinity Jews have for baseball. That affinity surely has something to do with the sociological experience of our forebears when they came to these shores. For baseball is still more than a boys’ game played by well paid grown men. And while there is no such thing as a six-pointed diamond, I cannot let these days go by–in their seriousness and in mine–without talking a bit about baseball. Even if I don’t, I know you will be. For baseball–in all of its mythic sensibilities–and Judaism–in its understanding of the world– share much in common. Historically and sociologically, baseball was the gateway to America for our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents. Almost 90 years ago, Morris Raphael Cohen, the naturalist philosopher who immigrated to America from Minsk, called baseball “the national religion” with a mythic unity. Newark native Philip Roth, grandson of immigrants, recalls his love of baseball:

For the mythic and aesthetic dimension that it gave to an American boy’s life–particularly to one whose grandparents could hardly speak English. For someone whose roots in America were strong but only inches deep and who had no experience such as a Catholic child might, of an awesome hierarchy that was real and felt, baseball was a kind of secular church that reached into every class and region of the nation and bound us together in common concerns, loyalties, rituals, enthusiasms and antagonisms. Baseball made me understand what patriotism was about, at its best patriotism in its tender and human aspects.

Crowded into tenements be it on the Lower East Side or on Chicago’s or Milwaukee’s West Sides, the baseball park, with its carpet of green, provided a pastoral rural setting. Seeking to enter mainstream America, ‘twas no surprise that baseball provided to American Jews American Jewish heroes, folks like Hank Greenberg.

Further, baseball gained a reputation as a cerebral game. Now there was a simpler time when a baseball player would acquire the respected nickname “Doc” through the great intellectual feat of wearing glasses. Yet true intellectuals like Henry Kissinger, another immigrant to America, have called baseball the most intellectual game “because most of the action goes on in [one’s] head.” And perhaps it was the Jewish passion for text and text study that further cemented the relationship. Years ago, The Sporting News became a holy text for many Jewish kids with box scores studied and debated with Talmudic intensity.

By the middle of the last century, the game had become so much a part of American Jewish life that some of this country’s greatest authors–who, of course, were Jewish–were writing novels reflecting their love of and knowledge of the game. Bernard Malamud’s first novel, The Natural, tells not the story of a Jew, but of one Roy Hobbes, armed with his bat Wonderboy, who failingly struggles to make it in life and on, woe of woes, the Chicago Cubs. Those of you who know The Natural from the movie must also know how different its ending is from the one Malamud wrote. The movie was mythic, if you will; the novel was Jewish. And no, Roy Hobbes did not win the pennant for the fictional New York Knights with that awesome home run which started a fireworks display when the ball hit the primitive lighting system; in the novel, mighty Roy just struck out. Mark Harris’ Bang the Drum Slowly, perhaps the best baseball novel ever, shares the struggle of two teammates as one faces an early death. While not one of America’s greatest authors, Chaim Potok used baseball extensively in both The Chosen and The Promise. Potok noted that “for the Orthodox Jew, baseball was the safest link to the general world because it [was] non-ideological and quintessentially American. What it did was it bought you into secular life at virtually no cost whatsoever to your particular culture.”

And there remains Newark native Roth, who may still be the preeminent American author even now in the 21st century. In his baseball novel, he focuses not on any one of his hopelessly confused professors but on the hopeless and hapless 1943 Port Ruppert, New Jersey, Mundys of the fictional Patriot League. Consisting of misfits rejected from service during World War II such as Hot Ptah, a hot-headed catcher with a wooden leg; outfielder Bud Parusha who, missing an arm, uses his mouth to take the ball from his glove; and the epic infielder Gil Gamesh, the Mundys find themselves exiled from their Jersey stadium which is needed for war purposes, thus eternally in exile, always on a road trip. And what did Roth title his novel? The Great American Novel.

Still, to talk about baseball on Rosh Hashanah, I must go beyond such simple comparisons between the boys of summer and the people of the book, be they sociological or literary. To take this important day and talk about baseball–even if both the Brewers and the Cubs are together in the post-season for the first time in history–I must offer something more profound. Thus, as the Brewers prepare to play the Phillies early this Rosh Hashanah afternoon (and the Cubs take on the Dodgers at Wrigley late this Rosh Hashanah afternoon), some lessons about community, about time, about life.

Baseball is unique among all sports in its blend of the individual with the community. As others have noted, baseball can be described as a “team sport played individually” or as an “individual sport played as a team.” In football, by way of comparison, the individual is almost always faceless, ever subordinate to the team. And except for the designated hitter in the American League–which belongs in baseball like, to reuse an expression, a fish on a bicycle–everyone plays the game. Baseball has no special teams-just as Judaism has no special atonement teams, no one else to gain forgiveness for our sins, no designated pray-er. We seek forgiveness these days as a community; every word of our confession is in the first person plural. Yet this is predicated on the assumption that each and every one of us has sought forgiveness from those we have wronged. Thus, lesson one–the individual and the community are inseparable one from the other with the individual member unable to vicariously do or be Jewish for someone else.

Now, take baseball’s understanding of time. Theoretically, a baseball game can go on forever. Sometimes it may just feel like it; sometimes it may actually be like that. It is possible for a baseball game to go on forever. There is no game clock, let along shot clock; no sudden death overtime, no crowd chanting down the seconds. In short, baseball functions on Jewish time. Thus, lesson number two–time is not a threat. Time is what we do with it. Judaism, while concerned with the end of days, centers itself fully in the here and now of this world. We are commanded not to count the days (or to count the clock, if you will) but, rather, to make the days, the clock, count.

So, how make the days, the clock, count? Well, how you play the game depends on all kinds of small things. For example, do you know what the difference is between a .250 hitter and a .300 hitter over the course of a season is? Twenty-five! Twenty-five hits in a season or, in simpler terms, one hit a week, can mean the difference between figures forgotten and a Hall of Fame figure. Thus, lesson three, the power of small things – in baseball, in life, and, yes, in Judaism. Think for a moment – what is it that God asks of any of you? Does God ask for massive sacrifices and great courage, n’er impossible acts and awesome deeds? Are we asked to leave home and family like Abraham, to martyr ourselves or our children like Isaac, to meet with God directly atop Sinai like Moses? No – we are asked rather to do humble acts and undramatic deeds, to perform unheroic gestures and simple kindnesses. Judaism, in short, consists of the sum of lots of small things.

Declared one Talmudic sage, “If a person fulfills one command, that person is happy, for in so doing the scale for that person and for the whole world inclines for good. But if that same person commits one sin, that scale inclines for ill.” Think of that–the fulfillment of one commandment by one individual–and the whole universe may change for the better. One person–one small commandment–the whole world–the power of small things. Think of all the small things you could do. You could begin every meal–even lunch at school-with a blessing. What better way to recognize from whence the food really came! You could begin Shabbat and yontif by lighting Shabbat or festival candles. You could get or make your own tzedakah box and daily place money within it. You could regularly visit someone who is lonely or in need. You might, perhaps, even observe one or more of the dietary laws. Most simple of all, you could even give thanks for the daily miracle of awakening each and every morning proclaiming, “Modeh ani-I am thankful.”

We even have a Hebrew word for each of these little things. That word is mitzvah. But please do not let the word mitzvah scare you off–do not say that it is too big or too hard for you. For while mitzvah is usually translated as commandment, no English equivalent can do it justice. One Reform Jewish guide says that mitzvah “suggests the joy of doing something for the sake of others and for the sake of God, and it conveys something more; it also speaks of living Jewishly, of meeting life’s challenges and opportunities in particular ways.” Doing one mitzvah, says our tradition, will lead us to do another mitzvah, then yet another for mitzvah gorreret mitzvah. The unheroic gesture of feeding the hungry at a soup kitchen; the simple kindness of reaching out to the stranger: the quiet joy of study, the humble act of prayer–doing and being Jewish each and every day of the year. Mitzvot – these are the small things than can transform your inner beings; these are the small things that can, with their power, make you holy.

A story is told of our great sage Rabbi Akiva who was illiterate until the age of forty. As he once passed by an old well, he saw a stone nearly with a smooth hole right in its center. Wondering aloud who had drilled that hole in the stone, he was told that no one had; the hole was the result, rather, of a constant drip of water from the well.

Needless to say, Akiva found a lesson in this. “If water,” he mused, “which is soft, can wear a hole into a stone, which is hard, when it is applied day by day, why should I ever despair of gaining more knowledge. The heart is softer than stone and Torah is more powerful than even water (even on days like today!). Surely Torah will penetrate the heart if applied little by little, day by day. Ultimately, Akiva became the greatest sage of his time, surely a Hall of Fame figure.

We know the goal for both–a World Series, a just world. That is the first part of lesson four–but there is a second part. Because we are painfully human, we know that true success is found in making the journey. Football, the antithesis, is a paradigm of war with the goal of overrunning the enemy’s position on the field and then conquering the enemy’s territory. And think of football’s military terms–the blitz, the aerial assault, the long bomb, the offensive and defensive lines. (George Carlin said this much better!) But baseball wants us to be safe at home, as Judaism wants a world safe for God and thus for us. It’s all in making that journey.

The journey was never meant to be easy–with many mistakes on the way. What else is that .300 hitter but someone who misses the mark over two-thirds of the time but still comes back to try to do better? And what about us, the ones who consistently miss the mark, who sin time and again but still come here to try to do better next time, next year. As a Jew and as a Cubs and Brewers fan, next year always meant the same thing, to do my best on the journey hoping for next year in Jerusalem, next year, a World Series.

Most fans of baseball and of the movies will say that Bull Durham is probably the best baseball movie ever made. Remember it? It centers on perennial minor league catcher Crash Davis, played by Kevin Costner, who gets stuck trying to explain the basics of baseball to wild rookie pitching phenom Nuke LaLoosh (played by Tim Robbins) who will someday get to the show. Color commentary is provided by love interest, philosopher, and baseball groupie Annie Savoy, played by Susan Sarandon, who said, “love is a lot like baseball. It’s not whether you win or lose. It is how you play the game. ” Eventually, next year will come.

Thu, May 30 2024 22 Iyar 5784