Saturday, April 03, 2010

Rabbi Alan Lew on Baseball

היום המשה ימים בעמר
Today is the fifth day of the omer
הוד שבחסד
A day of humility in a week of loving kindness

It's damp and a bit gloomy in San Francisco today, but I can feel the sunshine that comes with the start of baseball season. There's something magical about this day because no matter what team you root for, whether at the top of the heap or a struggling franchise, everyone can dream of their team going to the World Series.
One of the bonds I had with my teacher, Rabbi Alan Lew, z"l, was that we were both fervent sports fans, although the Warriors were the only team we had in common. As far as baseball was concerned, he was a National League snob and loved to make reference to "that other, bush league team across the bay" that I rooted for. But then again, I could never understand how he could ever root for the Yankees, even during the World Series of 2001.
So on this day when hope springs eternal, I give you an excerpt from one of my favorite Rabbi Lew sermons, given during Rosh Hashanah 5760 in September, 1999. I know he would appreciate me sharing it with all of you today. And I think many of you who knew Rabbi Lew will be able to hear his voice as you read.


I have been a baseball fan all my life. The most vivid memory I have is my first visit to Ebbets Field in 1948. My Uncle Benny, my favorite uncle who died a few years later, took me. It was the day the Dodgers clinched the pennant that year, and after the game the crowds poured out onto the street outside the Dodger dressing room and waited for their heroes to come out. In those days, athletes used to wear sport coats with white shirts -- no ties, collars spread wide open -- and as long as I live, I will never forget the sight of Gil Hodges immense Adam's apple protruding out of the open neck of his white shirt. He was a god.

Another sight I'll never forget; a short while later my father took me to my first night game, also at Ebbets Field. Coming into the park, I caught my first glimpse of that glistening green grass diamond bathed in the arclight. My heart still stops a little whenever I walk into a stadium and see that.

And, of course, in 1948, Jackie Robinson began the civil rights revolution by penetrating baseball, because both he and Branch Rickey seemed to understand that baseball was at the heart of the American psyche, and if America was going to change, it had to change here first. You know, Louis Finkelstein, the great chancellor, perhaps the greatest chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, had the same insight. He used to say, you can't be an American Rabbi unless you know baseball.

And in fact, I learned about social justice and civil rights and racial prejudice, not in school, not in synagogue, but through baseball.

Pee Wee Reese, the little colonel, died the other day. When Pee Wee Reese became the only player on the Dodgers to befriend Jackie Robinson, he also became my favorite player and he remained so until he retired.

Most of the ballplayers then were from the south. Pee Wee Reese was from the south too. Louisville, Kentucky, to be precise. But when the other players got up a petition saying they wouldn't play with Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese refused to sign. And then one afternoon in Cincinnati, when the fans were taunting Robinson mercilessly, and even some of the players were joining in, Pee Wee Reese walked over and put his arm around Jackie Robinson and stood beside him. Later, Jackie Robinson said, I never felt alone on a baseball field after that.

So When Jackie Robinson couldn't find a house to buy, I sent him a letter inviting him to come live in my neighborhood. He wrote me back. He said he was sorry that he couldn't live in my neighborhood, because he and his family had just purchased a house in Stamford, Connecticut.

Baseball mirrors life in a subtle and deeply spiritual way. It has a deep aesthetic and we pour our souls into this mythic diamond and allow our deepest aspirations and conflicts to play out there.

The pitcher gives up two singles in a row and then there is an error and the bases are loaded and gazing down on this pitcher from high up in the stands -- up in the upper deck where God sits so he can see the big picture -- gazing down on this pitcher we recognize his agony, we identify with his sense of impending doom, of endless trouble overwhelming him on all sides. Then it's over in a flash. Someone hits into a double play. הפכת מספדי למחול לי פתכת שקי ותאזרני שמחה – his mourning has turned to singing, his sackcloth and ashes to joy (Psalm 30,verse 12). And sure it had cost him a run, but it could have been worse -- much worse.

Then the next inning, your team leads off with a triple -- man on third, no outs -- infinite possibilities for success. But then they walk the bases full and as the possibilities for success increase, so does the possibility of trouble. Now you could hit into a double play. Now you could squander all this good fortune. Now your success could turn to failure.

Suddenly, the ball squirts away from the catcher. There's a thrill of fear.

And you feel all this inside your kishkes. This is happening to you. This is happening in your soul. Your soul is living out this drama.

When [Major League] Baseball went on strike some years ago, the year before the Ripken record, in fact, the cynical sports writers all said, 'This is a travesty, but the fans deserve it, because as soon as the strike is over they'll all come crawling back and fill the parks again.'

But to everyone's surprise, the fans did not come crawling back. Either they took vows to avenge the injury by not attending any games that year, or they simply lost interest -- they feigned indifference -- the surest sign of a broken heart there is.

Why were we so hurt? Because we felt we had been violated spiritually. We were invited to pour our souls and our hearts into this spiritual world, and our basic assumption in doing so is that this world would go on and on and on, like any good religious cosmos; that it would persist. And then Baseball goes and violates the cardinal rule of any religion. It stops showing up. It doesn't keep going no matter what. They didn't play the World Series the year of the strike for crying out loud. And in doing so, baseball gave us a very clear and a very ugly message; their money was more important than our souls.

We gave them our souls -- they held them in sacred trust -- and then they broke the faith. They didn't show up. They invited us to open our souls and then they failed to support them with their continuing presence. They didn't persist. They weren't there. They weren't present. They left our soul to flounder, like a fish flopping around on the counter at the fish market.

So when people say, Mark Mcguire and Sammy Sosa saved baseball last year with their successful assault on Babe Ruth's cherished record -- with their incredible shower of big, booming home runs -- I respectfully disagree. I think baseball began to be saved the year before, when Cal Ripken broke Lou Geherig's record. This record -- his performance -- was precisely the antidote for the abomination baseball had committed. Baseball had failed to keep the faith, baseball had failed to show up, baseball had stopped. But Cal Ripken had showed up every day for 2,131 days. Cal Ripken had never failed to show up, and this achievement seemed to me to penetrate right to the marrow of the mysterious spirituality of Baseball and its power to transform us.

Simple human presence -- simply being present, simply persisting in being here -- has a tremendous spiritual power. It has the power to heal. It has the power to nurture.

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