“This is Gonna Be The Year!” – Erev Rosh Hashanah 2016

So there I was, having dinner with my friends Theresa and Mark and their friends David and Sue, on the patio of a wonderful little Italian restaurant in North Chicago. It was Friday night of Labor Day weekend, and I was in Chicago to officiate at a wedding that Sunday. But Friday and Saturday were dedicated to friendship.

We had ordered appetizers and sat around the fireplace, when a young man came up and joined us. He was wearing a graphic tee-shirt with the image of thick-rimmed glasses, reminiscent of the ones that the late beloved Cubs baseball announcer Harry Caray used to wear. Theresa, a dyed-in-the-wool lifetime fan who had once named her two dogs Cubbie and Wrigley, complimented the young man on his sartorial choice and soon discovered he was a Cubs fan too.

And so began the recitation of what I shall call “A Cubby Fan’s History of Misery.” Theresa and her young friend lamented the lost opportunities of past years, as though they were still fresh wounds from a sharp spear. 1984 and 1989 were bad enough. But then the conversation really got ugly. 2003, the year the Cubbies were destined to win it all, and actually made it to the second round of playoffs. Sixth game. Eighth inning. Their pitcher firmly in control.

And then. Bartman. The stuff of legend. The fan in the left-field seats who knocked a long fly ball away from the glove of Cubs left fielder Moises Alou. And two batters later, shortstop Alex Gonzalez booting that potential double-play ball. The Cubs lost game six. And of course they lost game seven. And the agony continued.

But then, all of the sudden, the atmosphere lightened. Oh, this year’s Cubs! Manager Joe Maddon is a crazy genius! Jake Arietta is the best pitcher in the universe. Kris Bryant – wow, what a young star! The Cubs are winners. They are picked by just about every oddsmaker on the planet to win the World Series. And so the conversation ended with the inevitable declaration: “This is gonna be the year!”

That’s what it comes down to when you’re a Cubs fan and your team hasn’t won a World Series since 1908. You think Jews have a long memory? Hah! Try hanging out with a bunch of Cubs fans for a while! And yet after they re-hash every excruciating detail of every disappointment of every crucial loss of every season, they will still proclaim: This is gonna be the year!

I’ve spoken before about the nexus of God and baseball, and how it cannot be mere coincidence that the High Holy Days always intersect with playoff season. When one deed, like one crucial play, can make the difference on God’s scale of judgment. When one person, performing at his or her best in a clutch situation, can make the difference for so many people. But being with Cubs fans last month gave me new insight on just how powerful the connection really is.

Think about it: We are all Cubs fans in a way, as we reflect on the year 5776 as it comes to an end. We have whiffed on some balls we should have hit solidly to right field. We have been tagged out at second base more times than we can count, when our timing was not quite right. Our arms are like jelly after a season of trying to throw strikes perfectly every single time.

We may come to the High Holy Days tired, or disappointed, or insecure. But every single one of us entered these doors tonight with hope for the year 5777. That we can spend our time more wisely and more selflessly. That we can be better teammates with our spouses and children and parents and co-workers. That, regardless of what has happened in the past – This is gonna be the year!

Baseball, like life, takes skill and strategy to navigate. But fundamentally, it’s not really so complicated. As the pitcher Nuke Laloosh said in the movie Bull Durham: “This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.”

1. Sometimes You Win

Sometimes, in life, we come out winners. It feels good, doesn’t it? We get the job we really want, or the promotion we know we deserve. We get a chance to show off our skills, develop new ones, and prove our value to others. We have a healthy relationship with our partner and spend quality time with our children. We take the time to think about the decisions we make, and consciously do the right thing, for the right reason. Sometimes, circumstances just fall into place and life is a winning proposition.

And sometimes, when that happens, we remember to say, with appreciation, “I am really blessed.”

It’s not that manna has dropped from heaven, and we have only to pick it every morning. It’s that the knowledge and the skills we’ve developed, through our God-given ability to learn and to grow, are paying off. As a successful fisherman once said to the prophet Elijah, who asked how he learned his trade, “Understanding and knowledge [to do my work] were given me from Heaven.”

Winning in life, then, is not like winning the lottery. Mostly, it’s not a chance event, but rather a conscious choice. It’s the result of focused thinking and intentional behavior. I have a friend who, for decades, has thought she would be “discovered” and be a big singing star – just like on television. Did she take voice lessons? Well, no. Did she sing in the local choir or do community theater? No. But if only two of the four judges on The Voice would turn around for her, she would be so happy. If only she’d actually gone to the auditions for “The Voice.”

Sometimes we win by knowing our limitations. Our talent may be for writing but not for singing. For numbers but not for prose. That doesn’t mean you can’t learn to do something new. I hope we’re always learning that, otherwise life would be boring. But it means having enough self-awareness to get you pointed in the right direction.

Don jokes that, now that he’s finished up law school in his early 70’s, he discovered too late that he’d have made a really great bureaucrat. But along the way, he became a really good writer and editor. He took those God-given talents with which he was blessed, and he nurtured them. And he found other people – mentors – to nurture them. And they blossomed into a wonderful career. And of course led to a wonderful marriage.

Focused thinking and intentional behavior lead not only to winning but to wisdom. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the prophet Daniel teaches: “God gives wisdom to the wise, and knowledge to those who have understanding.” The rabbis asked: Isn’t that backwards? Wouldn’t it make more sense to give wisdom to somebody who needs it more? Knowledge to those who have little?

But God responds best to those who put the effort in. This is how the Talmud puts it:

“Observe how the character of the Holy One of Blessing differs from that of flesh and blood. A mortal can put something into an empty vessel but not into a full one. But the Holy One is not so; God puts more into a full vessel than into an empty one. And the reason is this: If you pay attention, you’ll go on paying attention. If you build on what you already have learned, you’ll continue to learn. But if your heart turns away from knowledge and wisdom, then you will not be able to hear it anymore.”

Writer Michael Lee Stallard wrote that good baseball managers, like Joe Maddon of the Cubs, know how to cultivate not just physical skill but positive thinking. He tells his players: Focus on what you can control. Work on your preparation, not on the outcomes. Be mentally prepared so you don’t make the mental mistakes. “When the time comes to act quickly, you will be prepared to do the right thing,” writes Stallard. “This time of mental preparation reduces stress and fear, which sabotages optimal performance.”

  1. Sometimes You Lose

Sometimes we lose because we sabotage ourselves. But sometimes we lose even when we are trying as hard as we can to do the right thing. The book of Deuteronomy teaches a theology of reward and punishment that’s pretty straight forward:  that the good are rewarded and the wicked are punished. But we know all too well that life doesn’t work that way. The author of Ecclesiastes lamented:

“All things have I seen in the days of my vanity; there is a just man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his wickedness.”

Sometimes our best efforts are ignored. Sometimes our hard work is taken for granted. Sometimes we feel unappreciated. And if we are good people at heart, and if we do keep our minds and our hearts and our ears open, it’s so frustrating when things don’t work out the way they should.

King Solomon, who was exalted as the wisest ruler of all, once said: “Through increasing wisdom I have increased vexation for myself, and through increasing knowledge I have increased suffering for myself.”

The smartest, wisest, most knowledgeable people take it hardest when things go wrong. Some withdraw into melancholy – and just check out. Some get angry – often misdirecting anger at the wrong people at the wrong time. A lot of times, these people not only take it hardest – but they take it out on themselves, causing a spiral of self-doubt that, like the Talmud’s heart that turns away from knowledge and wisdom, makes it even harder to dig out of a funk.

Joe Maddon is successful because he is upbeat and optimistic – and that positive outlook is positively infectious. Todd Johnson tells the story of Joe Maddon and Javy Baez, a young player that Maddon touted all through the exhibition season last year, even though Baez was struggling mightily. He was striking out way too much, a flaw that would get him sent down to the minors. Maddon said, “I just want Javy to come out and try to get better every day and stay in the present tense in working on things.”

Staying in the present tense is at least one reason why Javy Baez raised his batting average 120 points between the 2014 season and 2015. He has been playing solidly at the major-league level since his call-up from the minor leagues in mid-April. And on June 28th, he hit a grand-slam home run in the 15th inning that powered a Cubs’ win over Cincinnati. He still struggles with strikeouts sometimes. But fun has taken precedence over funk.

  1. Sometimes it Rains

But, hey: Sometimes it rains. Like a baseball rainout, life is very often about dealing with the consequences of things that are out of our control. The dishwasher is going to break down right before a big family dinner party. The boss will make you do somebody else’s assignment as well as your own. Your child will be suspended or reprimanded for inappropriate behavior. Your parent, or grandparent, will suddenly become ill and enfeebled and require constant care for which you will be responsible. And probably it’ll all happen at the same time. Because when it rains, it pours. Literally, sometimes, the elements may conspire against us.

As Todd Johnson wrote, if there’s one thing Joe Maddon can teach us about this, it’s to be versatile. Remember: Work on the preparation, not on the outcomes. Javy Baez has played three different positions this year on a spectacular team, and the young Cubs star Kris Bryant has played four. In life, too, it helps not to be too much of a specialist, not to be fixated on, or engaged in only one thing, a thing that can easily become tiresome, or obsolete – like teaching science or history from a text book that’s 20 years old. Sometimes we need to broaden or freshen our skill set – so that we’re more valuable, more able to adjust to an ever-changing landscape of daily demands and long-term goals.

In his law school career, Don has discovered the joy and fulfillment of “teaching an old dog new tricks,” so to speak. And, as I always say in touting our adult-education programs, it’s never too late to start learning. As Don and I have both found in our later-in-life academic careers, life experience gives us the ability to assess and analyze situations, and synthesize information, with a skill that younger colleagues often haven’t yet gained. And rainouts give us a little time to spend with a book, or a journal, or a gym, or a friend, whose company we’ve been missing.

SO: Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. Sometimes it rains. But whatever may happen to us, or with us, or in spite of us, it’s important to keep one thing in mind: Life, like baseball, is a team sport. Oh, we all look at the individual stats: batting average, earned run average, slugging percentage, how often you’re caught stealing. But, in the end, all those stats – however great or not-so-great they are – mean little if you’re not on a winning team.

And winning takes more than the strategy and wisdom of the manager. Winning on the field is up to the players, playing as a team – not just for themselves, but for each other. Winning in life is up to us – living not just as individuals looking out for ourselves and our own statistics, but as human beings charged by God with a responsibility to one another. It takes a little bit of selflessness.

The rabbis have this concept of tzimtzum – literally, contraction, or withdrawal. According to mystical interpretations of creation, the Divine Presence was originally so infinitely enormous and powerful that nothing else could exist. God literally had to shrink to allow the world as we know it to come into being. It didn’t mean that God was any less powerful, or any less present in our lives. By contracting, God showed a sense of immense selflessness that allowed us to come into being.

Selflessness, tzimtzum, is part of human life, too. It’s how a parent allows a child to start walking, talking, eating, and thinking for himself. It’s how a manager allows an employee to shine, to grow. It’s how a teacher, a rabbi even, learns to stop speaking and start listening. It’s how the most talented athlete becomes a champion.

On this Rosh Hashanah, God is calling each of us up to the plate. And it doesn’t matter if we’re a star player or a late-season call-up from the minors: When God calls, we respond. Not just for ourselves, but for the whole team. For parents and children, for friends and family, for classmates and co-workers, for the people sitting next to you in the pews tonight – and, yes, for the people down the block whose names we do not know.

It’s a really scary thing to be at God’s home plate. We stand here tonight, and look up at that eternal scoreboard above the ark – Da lifney mi ata omeid: Know before whom you stand. We feel God’s judgmental eye on us, wondering if we will be good enough, or strong enough, or faithful enough, or flexible enough, or selfless enough. Whether we will appreciate our blessings, acknowledge our limitations, and heighten our aspirations.

But you know what? We’ve already done one really brave, really good thing. We’ve walked in that door and allowed ourselves to be vulnerable. Because this is Rosh Hashanah. And it’s not just a day of judgement, it’s a day of hope. A day when we’re all Cubs fans. When anything old can be made new again.

It’s the post-season, people. And no matter how we got here – whether we were leading the league all year, or stumbling in as the dark-horse wild-card team – it’s time for us step up, stay in the moment, and shine.

If we can commit to that tonight….then, count on it:  This Is Gonna Be The Year.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own, as we say together: Amen.

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©2016 Audrey R. Korotkin

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