a text version of this past Shabbat’s sermon –
It is with some trepidation that I begin my remarks this morning by talking about a NY Yankees player, namely Derek Jeter, the shortstop who announced this week that he will be playing his last season this year. Orioles fans may breath a sigh of relief at the news actually, because Jeter has tormented the Orioles over the years, among many other teams in the league, and I think that there is no question that as soon as he is eligible he will be elected to the baseball hall of fame.
And I bring this up this morning not because I am a Yankees fan, which I am not, but rather because of the straight forward and yet at the same time poignant statement that Jeter released this week in which he announced his impending retirement. The statement is elegant and beautifully done, very humble, and worth reading if you are interested in such things, but it was this particular paragraph that caught my attention:
“Last year was a tough one for me. As I suffered through a bunch of injuries, I realized that some of the things that always came easily to me and were always fun had started to become a struggle. The one thing I always said to myself was that when baseball started to feel more like a job, it would be time to move forward.”
The realization is one thing. Understanding that you are just not at the top of your game anymore, that you can’t do it the way you used to be able to do it, and maybe it is time to hang up the spikes. I think people have those realizations all the time. But acting on the realization is a totally different matter, and commonly instead of letting go, people try to hang on. Jeter not only realized it was time to go – he actually followed up on it, he acted on it. He had what my friend Chuck Schevitz calls ‘the courage to quit.’
On the surface that might sound like a term that is oxymoronic. Because normally we associate quitting with the opposite of courage. Courage is about sticking it out, courage is about hanging tough in the face of adversity. Courage is the can do spirit, the Miracle on Ice, facing up to something when the odds are stacked against us. It is a value that is woven into our society – the one thing we would never want to be called is a quitter. I remember my high school soccer coach saying to us ‘it is much worse to be a quitter than a loser.’
But the truth is, sometimes it takes more courage to admit defeat, to step away – to quit – than it does to keep plowing forward. Not that tenacity isn’t an important value – it is! Where would Jews be without tenacity? But it shouldn’t be the only value. And I think you could make the argument that knowing when to quit is as crucial a life skill as tenacity is, or determination, or ‘sticktuitiveness.’ And not just in terms of sports, but in many areas of life. Knowing when to step away from a job, or knowing when to get out of a relationship, or make a change in a college major, or deciding as you get older that it is time to move from weekly basketball games to weekly golf games. You’ve got to know when to quit, and then you’ve got to have the courage to do it.
This week we are reading from the Torah Parshat Ki Tissa, the portion that records the events of the Sin of the Golden Calf. It is a story that we all know quite well – Moses is on top of the mountain for 40 days and nights, as God is communicating to him the laws of the Torah. Because Moses is gone for such a long time the people begin to get nervous – they haven’t heard from him, or seen him, they don’t know what has happened to him. They go to Aaron, Aaron facilitates the building of an idol, the people worship the idol, the Golden Calf. On top of the mountain God realizes what is going on, tells Moses, and Moses rushes down the mountain holding the tablets of the law in his hands. He reaches the camp, sees the people dancing around the idol, and then וישלח מידיו את הלוחות וישבר אתם תחת ההר – Moses threw the tablets from his hands, and he shattered them at the foot of the mountain.
Commentators have struggled for thousands of years to understand how Moses could have done what he did. Rashi, the classic biblical commentator says that Moses saw the people sinning, and he said to himself how can I give the Torah, something that is holy, to people who are sinners, who are ‘unholy’. But the simplest explanation is in the text itself – Moses was angry, so upset that he was in a rage, not thinking of what he was doing, like a person who is angry and slams their hand against the wall. He simply lost his head, and in his anger he broke the tablets.
But this morning I would like to propose a different explanation for Moses’ action. I think at that moment he was faced with a choice. The mission he had been on, which was to bring the people to God, had obviously failed. And he knew it! That moment, when he came down, and saw the people dancing around the golden calf, he knew it wasn’t working out the way it was supposed to work out. So his choice was this: either try to stick with the plan, which was symbolized by the tablets, or get rid of the tablets, go back to square one, go down and take care of the people, get things in order, and then maybe try it again. In a way you might look at it like this – Moses had to choose between God, and the people. God – God’s perfection, God’s wisdom, God’s Torah, God’s tablets – or the people, sinful, stubborn, imperfect and unwise. When he threw down the tablets, Moses chose the people. God would have to wait.
And I would argue in that choice Moses showed that he had the courage to quit. It was time to give up on the plan as it had been conceived. It wasn’t working – Moses knew it, and I think God knew it too. But it was Moses who understood that he had to act on that knowledge. You remember the old Kenny Rogers song about the Gambler – ‘you’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.’ Moses knew it was time to walk away, and then he actually did it.
We should be able to find the same wisdom in our own lives. With the help and support of family and friends, with our own courage and strength, to recognize when the moments arrive in our own lives, and the time comes to let one door close, so that we can open another one. I’ll conclude with these lines, from a poem by Edgar Albert Guest called ‘On Quitting:’
How much grit do you think you’ve got?
Can you turn from joys that you like a lot?
Have you ever tested yourself to know
How far with yourself your will can go?
If you want to know if you have grit,
Just pick out a joy that you like, and quit.