Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Rosh Hashanah 5756
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
Seminary lore has it that Solomon Schechter advised the young Louis Ginzberg, when he joined the faculty, to master the game of baseball. "You can't be a rabbi in America without understanding baseball." Destined to become a legendary scholar of Talmud, Ginzberg also amassed a vast knowledge of America's national pastime.
Such expertise is surely less important today. Baseball has deservedly fallen out of favor. Yet for one brief moment this month, we were reminded of the vanished glory of the game. On the evening of September 6 in Baltimore, Cal Ripken Jr., the incomparable shortstop of the Orioles, riveted the attention of the nation when he surpassed the iron-man feat of Lou Gehrig by playing his 2131st consecutive game. No record in baseball was held to be more unassailable, with the exception perhaps of Joe DiMaggio's streak of hitting in 56 straight games back in the summer of 1941.
I began playing baseball long before I heard of Solomon Schechter. My adolescent ambition was to show the world that Jews could play baseball. And like a good Jew, I have cultivated my capacity to suffer by rooting for the Chicago Cubs since 1945. Loyalty is not always rewarded. For nearly 20 years, the Cubs had one of the most durable, unselfish and hard-hitting shortstops in the history of the game in Ernie Banks.
For the most part, there are no heroes left in baseball today, just some fine athletes with an oversized appetite for money. But to play for 14 seasons without missing a game at the most demanding and dangerous position on the diamond, and to excel both offensively and defensively, requires character as it does athletic ability. That is what makes Ripken a throwback to Gehrig and a worthy successor to him. His ego and appetites are subordinate to the rigors and nobility of the game. His life style is as old- fashioned as his name.
In celebrating Ripken's accomplishment, we quietly come to terms with our own lack of consistency. We are better at sprinting than long distance running. Our natures bristle at routine or prolonged concentration. Mood swings, pain and self-indulgence weaken our resolve to persist. Self-control is not a virtue we cultivate and rampant substance abuse (an individual vice) threatens to wreck all efforts at health care reform.
For Jews, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur frame an annual period of introspection, a summons to reach for the ideals of Judaism. And Judaism is nothing if not a lifelong repetition of sacred acts that have the power to imbue our mundane lives with touches of eternity. It doesn't really work unless we practice it daily. Yet the mitzvot which American Jews favor are precisely those which occur but once a year: the kindling of Hanukkah candles or the holding of a Passover seder. Observance of mitzvot which call for regularity and persistence, like Shabbat, kashrut, study or prayer registers much lower on every survey. Paradoxically, the High Holidays in modern times have given rise to the three-day-a-year Jew, who personifies the polar opposite of the discipline it takes to turn Judaism into a source of holiness, a work of art and a medium for expressing our joy. For the rest of us, our High Holiday resolutions soon fall like trees in the gusts of our emotional tempests.
During the month of Elul, we ask God in Psalm 27 to help us attain the ideal of dwelling in the Lord's presence all the days of our life. The major obstacle is not external but internal, fault lines caused by our own weak, fickle nature. We need God to stiffen resolve.
To master Judaism we need a bit of Cal Ripken's grit, self-control and respect for something larger than himself. By curbing his individualism, he ended up winning a singular spot in the history of baseball. The constant denial of instant gratification led him eventually to the supreme gratification of universal acclaim. A Roman emperor once asked Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananya the reason for the alluring aroma of the Sabbath meals. The rabbi said: "We Jews have a special spice called Shabbat which we use to prepare our meals for the Sabbath." When the emperor asked if he might have some, R. Yehoshua rebuffed him: "It only works for those who diligently keep the Sabbath." That is, the Sabbath confers its blessings only on those whose lives are governed week in and week out by its rhythm, rituals and values. Internalizing a divine regimen sets us free.
As Jews, we are also part of an extraordinary record of national endurance that goes back nearly 4000 years. So many fragments from different layers of that unbroken past are deposited in our Mahzor. The High Holidays remind us of the intensity of Jewish piety, the grandeur of Jewish suffering, the richness of Jewish creativity. Historians can account for the individual parts of the story, but not for the story as a whole. We are awed and humbled by the totality of the Jewish experience and take refuge in theology to illuminate the mystery of our survival.
Records have a way of imposing obligations. As Cal Ripken neared his goal, pitchers stopped throwing him inside and players sliding into second base kept their spikes away from him. No one wanted the burden of ending his pursuit of Gehrig's mark. Similarly, the unmatched antiquity of the Jewish people denies our generation the right to trash it. Would we dare to vandalize an ancient pyramid, a medieval cathedral or a Civil War battlefield? What an unprecedented historical travesty if freedom and prosperity would induce American Jews to discard the patrimony that their ancestors preserved through untold hardships!
In greeting the new year with the sheheheyanu prayer, we not only thank God for having prolonged our collective and individual existence for another year, but also resolve to do our part so that we might continue to merit God's favor.
I extend my warm good wishes for a shana tova u-metuka.