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Of Baseball Gloves and Tallitot

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 – 

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, continuity, High Holy Days, Jewish festivals, memory, neighborhoods, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, seasons, sermon, Uncategorized, Yom Kippur

Colin Kaepernick and Gene Wilder

This a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 9/3/16

A week from tomorrow another NFL season will kick off, with the Ravens opening at home agains the Buffalo Bills.  Fans from around the country, at least for a now, can dream big – as they say, at this point every team is undefeated.

I am always glad when the formal season begins because I have strong distaste for preseason football.  I think there are too many games, I think it wears down the players, and I also think it is more than a bit cynical that they charge those of you who are season ticket holders for the preseason match ups.  Aside from that the games are mostly meaningless.  But this year the NFL preseason was more interesting than usual, mostly because of the quarterback who will probably be starting for the 49s next weekend, a young man by the name of Colin Kaepernick.   If you follow the news at all you probably know that Kaepernick has been intentionally sitting during the pre game playing of the national anthem.  Admittedly it is one of those odd moments when the sports world overlaps with nationalism and patriotism, but it is traditional now, before any major sporting event, to play the Star Spangled Banner.  And it is of course traditional that when the Star Spangled Banner is played, everyone stands.

But not Colin Kaepernick.  He has explained that his sitting during the anthem is a way of quietly but very publicly protesting what he sees as racial inequality and injustice in this country, specifically directed at the African American community.  Kaepernick himself is biracial – he has one black parent, one white parent – was adopted and raised by white parents.  But he clearly identifies with his black heritage, and he has decided, as a public figure, to stage these protests, to speak out, and to take a stand.

Now you may agree or disagree with him on the issues, and you also may not believe it is proper for him to use the  public stage that he has to make his point.  At the same time you might feel that he is being disrespectful to the American flag, and maybe by extension to America itself.  Certainly the flag is a potent symbol, the National Anthem is something that is emotional, that people feel deeply about.  And no question what he is doing is provocative.  But I’d like to think with you for a moment about what he is doing from a different perspective  – the perspective of pride in identity, of caring about who you are and where you come from so much that you will put yourself at risk to stand up for it.

Certainly that is something that Jews should be able to identity with.  Here we are reading the book of Deuteronomy, the entire book a last long speech that Moses gives to the Israelites before they enter the land.  The fact that an entire book of the Torah is devoted to Moses’ words gives an indication of what a towering figure he is in the eyes of the tradition.  Moshe Rabeinu we call him – Moses our teacher.  The greatest teacher, law giver, and prophet we have every known.

You remember Moses’ background.  Where was he raised?  In the house of Pharaoh, in the wealthiest home in all of Egypt.  We so closely identify Moses with the Jewish people that we don’t often think about this, but Moses probably had a choice.  He could have been an Egyptian, perhaps he could have become powerful, living a life of luxury in the greatest country in the ancient world.  But he didn’t.  He chose another life.  He chose to cast his lot with his own people.  And ultimately that choice meant exile, it meant a life of hardship and difficulty, it meant wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, and in the end never actually making it to the Promised Land.

So imagine for a moment with me this morning if Colin Kaepernick were Jewish.  And imagine if his public protest was in support of Israel, or some other Jewish cause.  And I now how hard this is to imagine, because I know how hard it is to imagine that there is a starting quarterback in the NFL who is Jewish. (Jay Fiedler the last!?)  But imagine for a moment, if during the debate about the Iran nuclear deal for example –  a Jewish quarterback had said I am going to sit during the National Anthem as a way of showing support for Israel.  Certainly there would have been people in the Jewish community who would have taken tremendous pride in that, and said, ‘that guy is a hero!’

And the truth is, maybe we would like more of our well known Jewish figures to publicly stand up for Jewish causes and to make statements about Jewish issues and to take pride in their Jewish identity.  Thinking this week particularly about Jerome Silverman – who is that?  Gene Wilder!  That was Gene Wilder’s given name.  I loved Gene Wilder.  He was astonishingly talented, and hysterically funny.  All of the classic roles and films – Young Frankenstein, and Blazing Saddles, and the Frisco Kid and of course the classic film version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where he played Willy Wonka.  But Becky and I weren’t even sure Gene Wilder was Jewish until his various obituaries started coming out.

In some ways Bernie Sanders was the same.  He seemed at times so uncomfortable with his Judaism, like he didn’t even want it brought up, and when it was, he made sure to let everyone know he was a secular Jew.  And this is not to knock Bernie Sanders as an individual, or as a politician for that matter, and it is not to knock Gene Wilder either.  It is simply to say that it would be nice, and in fact maybe it would even be important, if more Jews who were living in the public eye would show – publicly – a forceful pride in their Jewish roots and strong concern for Jewish causes.

Labor Day weekend may mark the beginning of the football season, but it also reminds us that the baseball playoffs cannot be far off.  (what is going to happen to the Orioles God only knows!)  And when Jews think about baseball, and they think about the holidays, who do they always think about?   Sandy Koufax, the hall of fame pitcher for the LA Dodgers, and the choice that he made not to pitch game 1 of the 1965 world series because why?  It fell on Yom Kippur.  A half a century later Jews still talk about that, we remember it, we hold it up as an example of a fellow Jew publicly affirming his Jewish identity and Jewish values.  We are tremendously proud of that moment.

And I think we need other moments like that.  It would be good for us, good for our pride, and I also think it would be good for our children and our grandchildren.  If I stand up to take a stand about a Jewish issue it doesn’t matter.  It is exactly what people would expect.  Our young people will say ‘that is the rabbi, of course!  No big deal!’  But if Bernie Sanders had said ‘I am running for president, and some of my core issues are based on Jewish values,’ or Jewish actor or musician stood up and said ‘I care about Israel and I am speaking out against BDS, or supporting some Jewish cause.  I think our kids would pay attention to that, and learn from it, and feel proud about it.

But you know what?  They will also pay attention to it, learn from it, and feel proud about it when we do it as well.  What a public figure does or does not do we can’t control.  What we do – that is up to us.  There is an old saying – rabbis only give two sermons – be good, and be Jewish.  Maybe this is a 3rd path – be good, be Jewish, and be proud.

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A Stiff Necked People

here a text version of my sermon from the second day of Rosh Hashanah:

This Rosh Hashanah, as we come together to mark the beginning of a new year, there are Jews gathering all over Baltimore in celebration.  Our purpose is the same, whether we are praying here at Beth El today, or at Chizuk Amuno, or at Beth Tfiloh or Oheb or Baltimore Hebrew – to thank God for the year that has gone by, to ask God that in the year to come we should all be inscribed in the Book of Life, and that the world will somehow find a way to peace.  But if our purpose is the same, our traditions – the traditions of our various congregations – can vary greatly.  Baltimore Hebrew folk started their new year picnicking at Oregon Ridge Wednesday night.  People at Beth Tfiloh are bringing in the New Year in their own way, and at Chizuk the same, with their own traditions and customs.

One tradition that may be unique to Beth El that has developed over the years is that commonly there is at least one sermon given on RH, that in one way or another deals with baseball.  This was a tradition that Rabbi Loeb started many years ago, when he spoke about Cal Ripkin and his consecutive game record.  Since that time sermons have been given about the famous base running mistake of Fred Merkel, or the good deeds of the knuckerballer Tim Wakefield, or the pitcher that threw a perfect game only to have it ruined by an umpire’s bad call a few years ago.

The tradition of speaking a bit about baseball at Beth El has become so established that Rabbi Saroken even asked me, just a few weeks ago, what baseball story I would be talking about this year.  And then she had a request – “Do you think,” she said, “you could tell a baseball story about women?  Whenever you talk about baseball, it is about men.”  Now ladies and gentleman, I don’t think I have to tell you that I believe in egalitarian Judaism.  But egalitarian baseball?  That was something I did not quite have my head around, and so I filed Rabbi Saroken’s question in the back of my mind, and it slowly simmered there while I thought of other sermons, and also of potential baseball stories that I might relate to you this holiday.

And then, out of the blue, the answer to Rabbi Saroken’s question appeared in the form of a slender 13 year old girl by the name of Mo’ne Davis.   Mo’ne is the star pitcher of the Taney Dragons, a little league team from Philadelphia that this year went all the way to the Little League World Series semi finals.  She can throw a 70 mile per hour fastball, which I probably couldn’t even see, let alone hit, and in the course of the summer she became the darling of the baseball world.  She was the first girl ever in the 67 year history of the Little League World Series to throw a shut out, not allowing the other team even a single run.  She was only the 6th girl in the history of the event to get a hit.  And she was the first Little Leaguer in history – boy or girl! – the first one – to land on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

By all reports Ms. Davis is a humble young woman with a good head on her shoulders.  She has handled all of the attention with great aplomb, continues to work hard in school, and at this point has pretty much put the baseball business behind her, because after all basketball season will be starting soon and evidently she is as accomplished on the hardwood as she is on the baseball diamond.  Nevertheless, it might be worthwhile just for a moment or two to consider what exactly it is that enables a young woman to succeed, on such a high level, in a sport that is without question dominated by boys and men.

And the first thing I would say about that is we must take into account the words of the great baseball sage Yoggi Berra who once famously said “baseball is %90 mental, and the other half is physical.”  And although Yoggi’s math is evidently even worse than mine, the point is well taken.  On the surface we might think about Mo’ne’s accomplishments as physical, but the truth is what enabled her to do what she did was only in part her physical ability.  I would argue much more important was her character, her mind, and her spirit – more what was in her heart and her kishkes than what was in her arm.

And I would suspect that among all of her other qualities, she also has one quality that is very often associated with the Jewish people.  Anyone who knows anything about baseball will tell you that a pitcher just can’t be successful unless he – or she! – has a very strong will. Baseball is a team sport, but at its core, perhaps more so than in any other sport – it is a contest between two players, one on one – the pitcher and the batter.  And that, my friends, is a contest of wills.  And in a contest of wills, it is the person who will not give in who ends up on top.

In the Mahzor, the High Holy Day prayer book, there is a phrase that appears multiple times, especially on Yom Kippur as a prelude to the recitation of the lists of sins.  Right before the ashamnu we say this:  שאין אנחנו עזי פנים וקשי עורף לומר לפניך – that we are not so stubborn, to say before You, God, that we have not sinned.  We are not THAT stubborn, perhaps, but stubborn we are certainly are.  In the Torah, God Godself calls the Jewish people an am k’shei oref – a stiff necked, stubborn people.  And for those of us who work as professionals in the Jewish community, it would probably be hard to disagree.  It is of course where all of the old jokes come from about 2 Jews and 3 opinions, or the Jew on the desert island who builds two shuls, the one he goes to every Shabbat and the one he wouldn’t set foot in.

Generally stubbornness is looked at as a negative quality, but what I want to suggest today is that there is something positive about being a stiff necked people, maybe even something necessary.  That if we hadn’t been a stiff necked people all these years, then we wouldn’t be where we are today, and possibly we wouldn’t even be at all.  You can trace this all the way back to our father Abraham, about whom we read on Rosh Hashanah, who was stubborn enough, courageous enough, strong willed enough – in other words, “stiff necked” enough – to speak out and say things that others didn’t want said, or to do things that others didn’t want done.  To smash his father’s idols, for example, as the Midrash teaches us, when he was a child.  Or to argue even with God about the fate of the citizens of Sodom and Gomorroh.  You’ve got to have a strong will and a stiff neck to argue with God.  There is a long standing debate about why Abraham was chosen by God to be the father of the Jewish people, and I think you can very plausibly make the argument that one reason was that he was stiff necked and stubborn.

But it is not just Abraham.  Think of David, not yet a king, walking out alone into the field of battle to face Goliath.  Or Esther walking into King Ahashverous’ throne room, hoping he will raise his scepter.  Or Mordecai refusing to bow down to Haman. Or in modern times Theodore Herzl traipsing around the world to insist that there should be a Jewish state, and that it should be located in the land of Israel.   We might easily say that if we were NOT a stiff necked people, Jewish history would have been very different, and we might even wonder if there would be a Jewish community – here at Beth El, in Baltimore, and around the world – to welcome in this New Year, 5775.

So at the beginning of this new year, among all the things we are thankful for, let us also be thankful for that strength of will.  God knows we needed it in the year just ending.  Lets make sure we continue to use it in the year that is ahead.  Lets be stubborn and stiff necked.  Lets be stubborn and stiff necked when we stand up for the State of Israel.  Lets be stubborn about insisting that our children and grandchildren come to Hebrew school so they can be Jewishly educated, even when classes conflict with soccer and lacrosse games.  Lets be stubborn about continuing to engage in Jewish life and rituals even when our children have left home.  Lets be stubborn about giving to Jewish causes, even when there are a million other good causes out there.  Lets be stubborn and stiff necked to stand up for the things we believe in, for the values that we hold, for the people that we love, and for the world we want to see – after all, we are a stubborn and stiff necked people – so we might as well put it to good use in the new year –

may it be a year of health and peace –

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