Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Neshama of Baseball - a New Season

A busy winter has kept me away from the blog. But it is time for spring, Pesach and Baseball (although it looks like opening day is a wash for the Cubs and Cards. One of my favorite Cardinals fans is Stephanie Crawley, who is a rabbinic student at HUC-JIR and who interns at our congregation. This was a D'var Torah she gave on November 4, the week before the election and the week after the Cubs won the world series. She agreed to let me post it for opening day. Please enjoy!

Each year at this time, Jews read the story of Noah, of the terrible flood, and of the miracle of the rainbow, which signified a better future for humanity. 

On Wednesday night, an estimated 40 million people sat on couches, on bar stools, and on stadium seats, witnessing the Chicago Cubs make history.

For Noah, It rained for 40 days, and 40 nights.

For the Cubs, I did the math, and turns out that if you count the days, their 108-season World-Series losing streak amounts to just about 40 total years of baseball played.

For 40 years of day games and 40 years of night games, it rained on the Cubs.

Earlier this week, when the Cubs were down 3 games to 1, it seemed like the deluge of despair wasn’t going to end.

Noah anticipated his salvation. He had hope, sending out a raven to search for dry land.

The raven never returned, but like the Cubs’ fans, Noah didn’t stop hoping.

Noah sent out a dove who returned with an olive branch,

and the Cubs came back to tie up the series 3-3.

Noah’s ark finally came to rest on dry land after 7 months, on the 17th day of the month.

And the Cubbies finally broke their curse in the Game 7 of the world series, in their, wait for it, 17th postseason game.

Coincidence? Almost certainly. Creative mathematics? Maybe.
Or, perhaps, a sign of the magic that baseball and Judaism share.

Wednesday night was the stuff of legends, a game for the ages, baseball at its best—two underdog teams battling it out in a fantastical, impossible journey to win it all in the end.

Hearts jumped in simpatico as we watched home runs, stolen bases, errors, and even… a rain delay.

We were attending, what the classic baseball movie, Bull Durham, poetically describes: “the Church of Baseball.”

For as long as I have been a Jew, I have been a baseball fan. I am not unique in this respect. Much has been written about the love affair between baseball and the Jews. This passion can be attributed to the history of an immigrant community hungry to be a part of American culture.

But it is more than just historical correlation. Rabbi Jonathan Cohen enumerates the numerous parallels between baseball and Judaism: “both venerate tradition, both emphasize community, both attach importance to special foods (think of ballpark franks, and don’t forget the peanuts and Cracker Jacks). Both have their rituals – e.g., the ceremonial throwing out of the first pitch, the seventh-inning stretch. There are even baseball “holidays,” such as the All-Star game and the World Series.”[1]

One of my favorite jokes asserts that even God is a baseball fan. How do we know? Because the Torah starts with “In the Big Inning…”

But the most important commonalities have less to do with the superficial similarities like traditional foods or dates on the calendar. The parallels exist on a more spiritual plane. Love for a team, or a sport, like faith, can often seem irrational. A pure rationalist might look at the outpouring of tears and celebrations that took place on Wednesday night, or at today’s parade in Chicago and deem them “silly.”
“It is only a game,” they might say. “What’s all the fuss?”

My answer to that would be, that, at their best, baseball and Judaism are about experiencing the ineffable, about transcending the mundane. The religious or spiritual resides [in a domain beyond words.] In an age of gigabytes and picoseconds, we tend to live too quickly and to miss much that we might see. Baseball, as it turns out, can help us develop the capacity to see through to another, sacred space,” writes former NYU Chancellor, John Sexton, who taught a yearly seminar entitled Baseball as a Road to God, which he later turned into a book.[2]

Baseball provides an opportunity “to transcend the mundane experience of everyday life…”[3] Sexton writes.  “While the teams and players on the field may change each autumn, the game’s evocative power is continuous. Opening Day in the spring and the World Series in the fall are the bookends of baseball’s liturgical time, and within the rituals of each season, fans are converted to believers…and events become part of a mythology, forever remembered and repeated with the solemnity of the most beloved sacred stories. And inevitably, each season brings its moments of heightened awareness—divergent from ordinary time and place—in which some discover a connection to something deeper than the ordinary. Such moments are remembered not merely for what they literally were but for what they evoked in those who experienced them.”[4]

If we just changed a little bit of the vocabulary, I could make this very same statement about Judaism.

Our team is Judaism. The worship-ers and synagogues may change over time, but every spring, Passover still arrives, and we still have Rosh Hashanah every fall, we repeat the same stories over and over, and add our own stories to Judaism’s sacred narrative. And from time to time, when it really works, we may experience moments of heightened awareness, some kind of connection beyond our ordinary experiences.

We need these rituals in order to experience moments of ineffable power. As much as we may try, we cannot rationalize the feeling of 100,000 people holding their breath as they wait to see if the wind will carry the long fly ball into the stands for a home-run.

Nor can we articulate the awesome power of hearing the blast of the shofar, or watching a Bar or Bat mitzvah chant from the very same book that our ancestors read.
This world series brought joy, comfort, and escape in a difficult time in our divided nation.

In his famous speech in the film Field of Dreams, James Earl Jones’s character declares the saliency of Baseball in our nation: “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.”

I don’t know what the outcome of Tuesday’s election will be. But I take comfort in the fact that in 149 days, my beloved St. Louis Cardinals will repeat the sacred cycle, and have another chance on opening day.

There will always be another year, more awe-filled moments, and a reason to hope.

[1]Sermon by Cohen, Rabbi Jonathan. "Baseball and Jewish Values.
[2] Sexton, John, Thomas with Oliphant and Peter J. Schwartz. Baseball As a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game. New York: Penguin Publishing Group, 2013. p. 5.
[3] Sexton, 9.
[4] Sexton, 14.