Baseball – a wise man once said – is like life. Some day, you will find yourself called to the plate with the score tied, in the bottom of the ninth. You, and you alone, can make the difference for your team. And you never know when you will get that call.
That wise man was Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, a great rabbi and a good friend. As a rabbi, he was an iconoclast who took progressive and sometimes provocative stances on issues of social justice and Jewish peoplehood. As a native of the south side of Chicago, he was a dyed-in-the-wool White Sox fan. Rabbi Wolf understood the parallels between sports and life. He especially understood the courage it takes to be the brave individual who is willing to be in the spotlight for a team sport.
Courage is the third of four traits that historian Howard Zinn identified as crucial to finding hope in these difficult times. At Rosh Hashanah, I spoke of the first two traits: compassion and sacrifice. Tomorrow morning, I’ll talk about the last one, kindness. But tonight, I speak of courage – because I believe that this is the great challenge we meet on Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement.
Courage may be easy to spot if you’re a baseball player in the spotlight. All you have to do is think of the week Aaron Judge of the Yankees just had. It took him a full week to get from 60 home runs to the record-tying 61, and to do it every day in front of Roger Maris’s family. Every at-bat was nationally broadcast and critiqued by national media.
After Wednesday’s game, Roger Maris, Jr. kidded Judge, “Why did you wait so long?” But all kidding aside, I think the seven-game home-run drought he suffered teaches us something important. As Jason Gay of the Wall Street Journal observed the next morning:
“A baseball record means something because baseball, at its core, is a game of achievement wrapped in regular failure. No one is promised a home run. The best hitters get hits merely 30 percent of the time, and ace pitchers have ugly afternoons on the hill. It’s an old game that enforces humility, and that might be the best thing about it. It’s good to be reminded of this now and then.”
That’s it. That’s the key to courage. Courage is the ability to know in advance that you’re going to succeed only a third of the time, that people will watch you fail and maybe criticize you for it, and that you’re going to go ahead anyway and try, every single time, to succeed.
Life, too, is a “game of achievement wrapped in regular failure.” And when we stand here at the open Ark tonight, we acknowledge our failures of the past but not just that. The words of Kol Nidre are the key:
“Let all our vows and oaths, all the promises we make and the obligations we incur to You, O God, between this Yom Kippur and the next, be null and void should we, after honest effort, find ourselves unable to fulfill them. Then may we be absolved of them.”
We are not asking God tonight just to forgive our failings for this past year. We are courageously acknowledging to God that we know we’re going to mess stuff up this year. A lot.
But we say: We will try our best, God. Please, don’t count it against us that we are only human. Because that’s the way you created us. Give us, O God, the courage to succeed humbly and fail gracefully – and then get up and do it all over again.
We may see a guy like Aaron Judge and think that his courage, like his bat speed, is something that comes naturally to him. And Judaism does teach that courage is a trait with which God endows every human being. But don’t expect it to just appear like magic at times when we need it. It’s part of the spark of divine light inside each of us that needs to be cultivated and encouraged. In Hebrew we call it ometz or ometz lev – literally “strength of heart.” Having that courage – growing that courage inside of us — does not make us immune to failure. It doesn’t mean we’re not afraid to fail. Of course we are. Fear of failure is part of our nature, too. But out of that fear comes our strength. as my colleague Rabbi Marc Margolius teaches:
“Simply observing the fact that we are afraid, without judging ourselves for that emotion, offers the possibility of acting in a way that is not determined by that fear. That is ometz lev – doing that which is right and just, even in the face of challenging emotions.”
Baseball requires courage, whether your 12 or 30, whether you’re a kid or a pro, whether you’re winning or losing. Or whether you’re just walking onto the field. Rabbi Wolf knew that baseball really is like life. All of us play team sports in one way or another – for a family, a company, a congregation – and yet each of us is judged by our individual achievements on behalf of everybody else.
That courage that comes from the heart. Ometz lev is whatallows use all those other traits we’ve been talking about during these days of awe: kindness, compassion, sacrifice. Without courage, none of the rest of this would be possible. Knowing in advance that we are likely to fail a good part of the time is what Yom Kippur, these Days of Awe, and this Jewish life is all about.
On Rosh Hashanah, I spoke of how our smallness in the face of the enormity of the universe makes every single act even more important. Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz wrote about how very courageous that is:
“Courage comes from realizing that our role in the universe is unique but limited. Yet, it’s this limitation that allows us to excel beyond our wildest dreams. It allows us to pursue our destiny. And whether we know it or not, courage is the engine that allows us to move forward perpetually, with intentionality, with compassion, and with the knowledge that meaning is found through navigating the tribulations of living a full, active life.”
In his post-home run column this week, Jason Gay wrote of the unique unpredictability of baseball, and how you can’t force history to happen. It takes time. It takes patience. It takes courage. As we learned in the movie “Bull Durham”: Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains. But you always go back to the ballpark the next day.
The first time I met Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, I had just arrived in Chicago. I was part of a special welcome ceremony for new colleagues in the sukkah at KAM Isaiah Israel, Arnie’s old congregation on the South Side. In his gruff, deep voice, he placed his hands over me in blessing and said, “We’re glad you’re here! We really need you!”
You never know when you’ll be the one someone else needs. That’s the courage of the heart, the ometz lev, that we call upon — as God calls upon us to step forward on this Day of Atonement. Do not be the one of whom God asks, “Why did you wait so long?”
Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our mission here on earth. As we say together: Amen.
©2022 Audrey R. Korotkin
 Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), p. 208.