A text version of my sermon from Kol Nidre eve –
Those of you who have been coming to High Holy Day services at Beth El for many years know that a wide variety of topics have been addressed from the pulpit during the holiday season. From climate change to 9/11, from Israel to the American Jewish community, our rabbis have used the holidays to do their best to let you know what they think about the issues of the day.
But if there is one topic that has been talked about more than any other over the years, it just might be baseball. I hesitate to bring baseball up tonight, after the season the Orioles have had. But, as baseball fans will tell you, the game of baseball is a metaphor for life, with its ups and downs, its twists and turns, and its winning and losing. It is filled with sermonic lessons – sacrifice, contributing to a team, being part of something greater than you are, how one deals with defeat and disappointment. Many of you may still remember the wonderful sermon Rabbi Loeb gave the fall that Cal Ripken retired from the Orioles about Baltimore’s Iron Man. You’ve heard from the pulpit sermons about Mo’ne Davis, the first young woman to ever win a game in the Little League World Series, and also about the famous base running mistake of Fred Merkel.
And tonight I would also like to talk with you for a few minutes about baseball, not a particular player or event in baseball history, but rather about a baseball glove. You all know what a baseball glove is? The large and padded leather glove worn by players when they are fielding. Protects the hand against that hard ball. Just out of curiosity, how many of you have owned a baseball glove at one point or another? And how many of you know now where that glove is? Well I would like to tell you tonight the story of a baseball glove that was lost for many years, and was only recently – and entirely unexpectedly – found.
The story begins almost exactly 40 years ago in Willoughby OH, on a fall evening in September of 1978, when the Little League baseball season all star game was being played. The very best players from the Little League teams in the area had been selected, and it was a close game that evening. The difference maker was a young man named Christopher Lisi, who hit two home runs. When the game ended and his team had won, Christopher was mobbed by his teammates and then carried off the field.
The next morning, still in a celebratory mood, Christopher woke up early, and he realized his baseball glove was not in its normal spot in his room. He looked for it and couldn’t find it anywhere, and just as the sun was coming up he got on his bike and raced back to the field where the game had been played. There was no baseball glove in sight. Despite his euphoria about the big win he felt the sting of disappointment for losing an object which had been an important part of his life for many years.
Now you have to shift into the present day. Forty years have gone by since that night. Christopher is now a math teacher and a coach, a husband and a father, and still lives in Ohio. His parents – Julie Anne and Mike – retired many years ago, and now make their home in Jupiter Florida. The Florida-Lisis have a ritual they enact every Wednesday. They go to a local good will store, schmei around for a while, and then go to an evening service at their church. Been doing it for years.
Ten days ago they were in that goodwill store, looking through the various and sundry items on the shelves when Julie Anne’s eyes rested on an old baseball glove, dull brown and scuffed, a classic Wilson mitt. For whatever reason she picked up the glove, and then she saw it – written on the side in permanent marker, her son’s name – Christopher Lisi. Her jaw nearly dropped to the floor, and she took a picture of the glove and immediately texted it to her son. Christopher called back on the spot and said ‘buy it!’ She and her husband took it up to the counter and paid $1.49 for the old glove. They both had tears in their eyes. How it traveled the 1000 miles from Willoughby to Jupiter, and what happened to it during that forty years, they’ll never know. But the baseball glove is back with their son, and Christopher, now in his mid 50s, once again considers it to be one of his most prized possessions. Even for Orioles fans, that is a feel good baseball story.
I would also like to tell you tonight about another prized object, also first owned by a teenager 40 years ago – actually 41 years if we are being accurate. It is the tallit that I wore to my bar mitzvah. I never lost my bar mitzvah tallis and later found it in a good will store, but it did travel many miles with me. From Binghamton to Boston, to LA, to Jerusalem, to New York, to Baltimore, wherever I’ve lived I’ve taken that old tallit. It is worn and frayed now, with holes developing along some of the creases that have been folded over and over again. That tallis was used more than anybody could have expected at my bar mitzvah, because when I became a daily davener – in my mid 20s, now thirty years ago, that was the tallit that I put on each morning.
A few weeks ago I published a blog post in which I wrote that as well as my bar mitzvah tallis has served me, I have finally decided to ‘retire’ it. I have other beautiful tallitot, and with the fraying getting worse and the holes getting bigger, it was just time. I used it one last time and carefully set it on a shelf in our closet, and it has been resting quietly there ever since. I don’t know exactly why, but something about that blog post and the story of my old tallit struck a chord. Many of you emailed me about it, or called or said something to me at kiddish. And I’ve been thinking about why people responded to a story about my old bar mitzvah tallis. And since I heard about Christopher Lisi’s baseball glove, I’ve been wondering why I responded to that – and maybe you did too.
And I think the answer has something to do with sacred objects, and the role they play in our lives. I know many of you have sacred objects at home. It might be a tallit, that was owned and worn by a grandfather or great-grandfather. It might be a kiddish cup that has been passed down through the generations of your family, or a bris suit that babies have worn, or a special kippah, or a wedding ring that belonged to someone you love, that maybe you now wear on a chain around your neck. Or it might be a baseball glove. Whatever it is, that sacred object is precious to you in a way few other things are.
Those sacred objects in our lives bear witness to two things. On the one hand, they remind us of what once was. Family seders when our grandparents were still there. A bedroom we slept in as a child. A neighborhood where we lived, filled with friends and colorful characters. What we felt like when we stood under our huppah, or when we were 13 years old reading from the Torah at our bar mitzvah, or in the case of Christopher Lisi and his ball glove, how he felt the night he hit two home runs and his team won that all-star game. Those objects remind us of hopes and dreams we once had, of relationships we cherished, of the memorable moments of our lives, and probably in many cases of a simpler time when everything seemed right in the world.
But the other thing a sacred object bears witness to is how much time has gone by, how much has changed in our lives. I decided to wear my old bar mitzvah tallit one last time, and what better time than Kol Nidre eve, the only evening of the entire year when we are asked to put on a tallis. Wearing it tonight reminds me of how much has happened in the 41 years since I first put it on. High school and college. Had my first real job. Becky and I were married. I became a father – three times! I lost two of my closest friends. Went through rabbinical school and was ordained as a rabbi. Our kids have grown and gone off to college and beyond. And this old tallit has seen all of it.
The holidays are like that too. Not sacred objects, but there is no question they form sacred time. Kol Nidre eve, like that baseball mitt, or my old tallit, is also a witness. A witness to the hopes and dreams we recall tonight, to time gone by, and to the inevitable ways in which each of us has been transformed by the years. But unlike a tallit or baseball mitt, this sacred moment transcends us as individuals in the here and now. It accompanied our parents, and our grandparents too, in their darkest and most difficult moments, in all of their achievements and joys, during their journeys on earth. And also all Jews, in every age, in every land, where we built our homes, our communities and synagogues, the thriving culture of which we are so proud.
So this evening, in the brief time we spend together, let the words we speak and the melodies we hear link our lives to all the generations before us, and to the eternal rhythms of our people’s experience. May the beauty and wisdom of our heritage accompany each of us on our journey in this new year, always a source of strength, comfort, hope and faith for us and those we love.
May it be a year of peace, meaning, and hope –