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Yom Kippur - 2010 / 5771

09/10/2010 09:30:24 AM


Rabbi Howard Jaffe

As you know, I chose to speak on Rosh Hashanah, as I often do, about a topic that is timely, bringing Jewish teachings and sensibilities to a burning issue of our day. Not today. Yom Kippur is about the timeless, a day to look inward toward our individual and collective souls, a day devoted to grappling with the meaning of our lives as we face our own mortality.

And so it may come as a surprise that I begin with reference to baseball.

For those who are keeping track, it was five years ago today that my Yom Kippur sermon referenced Sandy Koufax, it being the 40th anniversary of his refusal to pitch in game one of the World Series that year, cementing his place as a Jewish role model for American parents. I mention this because I want it to be noted that I do not regularly speak about baseball, or use illustrations from the world of baseball or any other sports in my sermons, as I am about to do once again.

In preparation for my high holiday sermons this year, I decided to look back at what was in the news the first days of September, 2001, to get a sense of what the world was like during what feels like were our last days of innocence. It turns out that on September 2 of that year, nine days before the events that would shake our world, Mike Mussina of the New York Yankees (now it is Yom Kippur, please respond appropriately) pitched a near perfect game against our Red Sox at Fenway Park. A perfect game is one in which all 27 batters in a game are retired, and no one makes it to first base. Only 18 perfect games have been recorded since the year 1900, out of hundreds of thousands of major-league games played in that time period. Mussina came the closest anyone ever did without succeeding, one strike away before, okay, who wants to say it: Carl Everett singled to left field. Mussina was, reportedly, inconsolable afterwards when he was quoted as saying "I'm going to think about that pitch until I retire." Ironically, the opposing pitcher was David Cone, who had previously thrown one of those 18 perfect games himself two years earlier, while wearing a Yankees uniform himself.

Cone had a somewhat different take: "He shouldn't turn that great game into such a negative… He should look back on that game with a lot of pride. It might be the best game he's ever pitched." Of course, it was easy for him to say that and to see that: he was not the one who lost the perfect game at the last moment, and he was one of only 14 pitchers in history who had, at that time, accomplished the feat.

Cone was right: It probably was the best game Mussina ever pitched. His inability to appreciate that is both tragic and completely understandable. Think about what he said afterwards. It was not about pitching the fourth one hitter of his career, or about how he handled the first 26 batters of that game, but about that one pitch: "I'm going to think about that pitch until I retire." He retired two years ago. I wonder if he has, in fact, stopped thinking about it.

How about you? What are the moments you think about, and relive, and wish you had done differently?

There are moments in all of our lives that stand out for us just like that one pitch does for Mike Mussina. For me, more than any other, it is the last time I ever saw my father. I was living in Jerusalem, in my first year of rabbinical school, and had come back here to the states for my sister's wedding. It was Thanksgiving day, 1978. My father and I had a wonderful relationship, and there will never be any doubt that he loved me or that he knew that I loved him, but we were never expressed that physically. Like most fathers and sons of my generation and before, I cannot recall a single time that we ever actually hugged. My parents brought me to the airport, back in those days when family and friends were allowed to be in the gate area, and as I prepared to board the plane, I gave my mother a hug, and thought about doing the same with my father. For some reason the thought crossed my mind, as it had not several months earlier when I first went to Israel, that I was about to embark on a trip of 6000 miles, and not expected to be back for many months, that I might not ever see him again, and that I ought to give him a hug. As quickly as it entered my mind, I dismissed it as morbid and ridiculous. I grabbed his hand, said "See ya, Pop," and headed for the jetway. 2 1/2 months later, the phone call came in the middle of the night that has kept me from ever forgetting that moment. Perhaps that is why I hug my children as much as I do. That which never gets fully resolved keeps working its way through our lives, and that is not always a bad thing, especially when what we do to work it through brings more love and light into the world.

How about you? What are the moments you think about, and relive, and wish you had done differently? What do you do differently as a result? Is there anything so big that it keeps you from moving forward?

I want to come back to Mike Mussina for just a moment. Think about that baseball game: it is hard to imagine that if he had given up a hit to the first batter, and then retired every single one after that, it would have affected him quite the same way. Disappointment is always a function of expectation and anticipation, which both could only grow as the game went on. In the end, despite what his former teammate pointed out, that it was probably the best game of his life, it gnawed at him for years, and perhaps still does to this day. Imagine: he might very well have been happier and more peaceful had he pitched a lousy game that day.

It makes sense. Dashed expectations and broken dreams hurt more than having none at all. Think, for a moment, about the story of the 10 plagues. The rabbis teach that worse than not letting the Israelites go was Pharaoh consistently agreeing to let them go, and as soon as each plague was lifted, changing his mind.

And as we sit here today, every one of us knows what it means to have dashed expectations and broken dreams. There is no single person here today or anywhere whose life has turned out exactly as he or she once imagined. While it is possible to pitch a perfect game, there is no such thing as a perfect life. In fact, I do not understand how the word perfect can ever be applied to the human condition.

We learned at the outset of our people's story about brokenness. No sooner did Moses come down from Mount Sinai with the tablets of the Commandments than he smashed them into pieces when he saw the Israelites worshiping the golden calf. Yet after Moses came down with a second set, and placed them in the ark, God instructed him to place the shattered pieces of the original tablets in the ark as well. In her book, Sacred Therapy, Estelle Frankel writes "ultimately, the whole and the broken live side-by-side in us all… The two revelations at Sinai can also be seen as symbolizing the inevitable stages we go through in our spiritual development. The first tablets, by the initial visions we have for lives, frequently shatter, especially when they are based on naïvely idealistic assumptions… Yet if we learn from our mistakes and find ways to pick up the broken pieces of shattered dreams, we can go on to re-create our lives out of the rubble of our initial failures. And ultimately we become wiser and more complex as our youthful ideals are replaced by more realistic and sustainable ones…… The myth of the broken tablets teaches us that when we abandon old pathways, it is important that we hold onto the beauty and essence of the dreams we once held dear… for ultimately the whole and the broken live side-by-side in us all."

No, our lives are not perfect. In fact, there is no Hebrew word for perfect. There are two Hebrew words that we find in the Torah and elsewhere in the Bible that are often translated as perfect, and are even applied to human beings in some instances, but a better translation would be whole. One of those instances occurs when Jacob wrestles with the divine presence, resulting in the change of his name to Israel, and walks away from the experience limping. The Torah tells us that he arrived at his next destination shalem, whole, a word used to describe no other person in the entire Hebrew Bible, and not used to describe him until after that experience, either. It was not until Jacob was at least a bit broken that he was described as shalem, as whole. The whole and the broken live side-by-side in us all.

Job, a man of exceptional faith had that faith not merely tested, but stretched to the absolute limit. He is described as "tam v'yashar," sometimes translated as perfect, other times more properly as blameless and upright. His story is certainly not one of a perfect life. As the story starts, his life was pretty extraordinary. And then he loses all 10 of his children at once, loses all of his worldly possessions, and is smitten with boils. It takes some time, but eventually, he curses the day he was born. The midrash teaches that when he finally did, God showed him a sukkah with three walls. Rabbi Sidney Greenberg writes "A three-walled sukkah is God’s way of reminding Job that every person’s sukkah has one wall missing. Sure, everyone would like to have a four-walled sukkah: a happy marriage, gifted children, a successful career, good health and a long life." But no one has a four-walled sukkah. All of us know sorrow, failure, loss of health, and disappointment in different aspects of our lives. None of us are exempt from suffering and broken dreams…Three walled sukkahs are the rule, not the exception. And yet, a three-walled sukkah is kosher for use. Despite the missing wall, the sukkah continues to stand.

Greenberg continues: "Life is full of heartbreak but it is also full of ways of overcoming it. So God was saying to Job, stop thinking only of the pains you suffer, you also have pleasures to enjoy. Stop counting and recounting your losses and begin counting your blessings. Sure you have lost a wall of your sukkah, but there are three walls remaining. Make the most of those three walls. You will be held accountable for what you do with those remaining walls."

In Job's case, the story ends with his health restored, his wealth doubled, and his being blessed with 10 new children, as if somehow his first children could be replaced. He lives for a long time afterwards, apparently, though not explicitly, enjoying life. The whole and the broken live side-by-side in us all.

Rabbi Greenberg, whom I mentioned a moment ago, was an extraordinary preacher and writer, who led a single congregation in suburban Philadelphia for more than 50 years. And it appears that he internalized his own words. When his own adult daughter died in 1998, he wrote “I am grateful beyond words that she loved her life so deeply.” Clearly, he carried the whole pieces along with the broken ones. Some years earlier, in 1981, he wrote in his regular column in the Philadelphia Inquirer about "two paraplegics who were in the news about one week apart. The first was a high school football star and, later, an avid wrestler, boxer, Hunter, and skin diver. A broken neck sustained in a wrestling match in 1979 left paralyzed from the chest down. He underwent therapy, and his doctors were hopeful that one day he would be able to walk with the help of braces and crutches.

"But, apparently, the former athlete could not reconcile himself to his physical disability. He prevailed upon two of his best friends to take him in his wheelchair to a wooded area, where they left him alone with a 12 gauge shotgun. After they left, he held the shotgun to his abdomen and pulled the trigger. Kenneth Wright, twenty-four, committed suicide.

"The second paraplegic in the news was Jim McGowan. Thirty years ago, at the age of 19, Jim was stabbed and left paralyzed from the middle of his chest down. He is now confined to a wheelchair. But he came to our attention recently when he made a successful parachute jump, landing on target in the middle of Lake Wallenpaupack in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania.

"Soon afterward, I spoke with Jim and learned a number of other things about him. He lives alone, cooks his own meals, washes his own clothes, cleans his own house. He drives himself wherever he goes in a specially equipped automobile. He has written three books, and he took the photographs of the first books published on the history of wheelchair sports.

"When I asked Jim how he managed to do so much with so little, he answered, 'It wasn't easy. I had my years of darkness, and I took a long time to get there. Then I came to the conclusion that I am ultimately responsible for my life. Since I am responsible for my life, I'm going to make it as beautiful as I can.

"No shotgun, please.

"No one has the right to sit in judgment of disabled athlete who threw in the towel. Who knows what any of us would have done in his terrible situation? ..... But Jim McGowan's heroic response to the same disability is surely a much-needed reminder of the resilience of the human spirit, of our God-given ability to cope with- and to triumph over - difficult or even impossible seeming circumstances."

Jim McGowan has certainly done a lot with his three walled - or even two and a half walled sukkah -- which, by the way, is also kosher for use. I did some further reading about him, and it is clear that the broken pieces are the ones that inspired him to make his life so full. The whole and the broken live side-by-side in us all.

Every week, as we did this morning, we offer our prayer for healing, Mi Shebeirach, and usually introduce it with a reminder that there is a difference between cure and healing. We usually say something along the lines of how cure is about condition, and healing is about how we approach our condition. Cure alters what is; healing offers what might be. Cure encounters mystery as a challenge for understanding; healing encounters mystery as a channel for meaning. Cure seeks to conquer pain; healing seeks to transcend pain. Cure is taunted by suffering; healing is taught by suffering. There is no cure for Jim McGowan's broken body, but God knows that there has been healing. There is wholeness, there is shleimut. There is shalom.

Just a few minutes ago, we read the same words from the Torah that we read it every year on this day: "I have set before you life or death, blessing or curse; choose life, that you and your descendants may live – by loving your God, listening to God’s voice, and holding fast to the One who is the length of your days." Forty years of difficult, sometimes harrowing wandering in the wilderness, and it was just about time for the next chapter and a new set of dreams, dreams which could not even be envisioned by previous generations, dreams built on the foundation of not only previous dreams fulfilled, but broken ones, as well, as they carried the ark with both sets of tablets with them. And it is up to us, as it was up to them, what we make of our disappointments and broken dreams, whether we choose life and blessing, knowing that God, the source of all healing, makes that choice possible.

R’faenu Adonai v'nerafe, hoshienu v'nivasheah, ki t'hilatenu ata. Heal us, Adonai, and we will be healed; save us, and we will be saved; for you are our glory.

And let us say,


Sat, December 4 2021 30 Kislev 5782