Erev Rosh Hashanah 2018: Finding God in Baseball
The following is the sermon delivered by Austin at Temple B’Nai Israel in Parkersburg, West Virginia. Erev Rosh Hashanah was his first sermon delivered to the community.
I want to tell you a story about one of the most spiritually impactful moments of my life. It is a story of a father and son. It is a story of struggle and defeat, followed by victory and triumph. It is a story of community, of commitment, and of . It is the story of the night the Cubs won the World Series.
Growing up in suburban Chicago, my father raised me to be a die-hard Cubs fan. I remember every season as its own little roller coaster, most ending in bitter heartbreak, some in October and others far earlier than that. My dad and I agreed that, whenever the Cubs had three wins in the World Series, we would both head home, wherever we were in the world, and go to Wrigley Field, in the hopes of watching magic happen and seeing the curse broken.
Well, in 2016, after falling behind 3-1, the Cubs found a way to win Game 5, then Game 6, forcing a deciding Game 7. The game would be in Cleveland, but I booked a flight to Chicago, heading home to be with my dad.
24 hours later, my father and I were standing in the streets of Wrigleyville, surrounded by strangers hugging and celebrating. We were covered in champagne, we had long since gone hoarse, and the elation of the night was only just beginning to hit us. A parade would follow a few days later. 5 million people would come together to celebrate. It would be the 8th largest event in human history.
Looking back, I remember all of the moments that came flying at me that night. I remember the anxiety and fear that came with a win-or-go-home Game 7. I remember the pride I felt for being from somewhere that had the capacity to care so deeply about something. And I remembered the gratitude that I felt, getting the chance to share this incredible moment with my dad, something we weren’t sure we would ever see in our lifetime.
There are moments in life that we experience with great clarity. Moments of joy and of sorrow. Moments of excitement and disappointment. Each one a small glimpse into something bigger than the everyday, something bigger than the normal with which we occupy ourselves on a regular basis.
Our Jewish tradition was familiar with this feeling. In the book of Genesis, the story of how our people came to be, Jacob was fleeing the wrath of his brother, from whom he had just stolen the blessing of their father. He was fleeing, running, scrambling to get away from his brother, but he needed to stop for the night, to rest his tired body. And there he dreamed. He dreamed of angels, ascending to heaven on a ladder, and returning to earth. Upon awakening, Jacob declared:
יש יהוה במקום הזה ואנוכי לא ידעתי.
"God was in this place, and I did not know it.” In a moment of intense emotion and activity, Jacob is forced by a divine image to stop, to open his eyes and acknowledge the holy in his journey.
Of course, our Torah uses stories such as that of Jacob to teach us a lesson about how we are supposed to think about our relationship with holiness and with God. They are a model of the best of what can be in the world of spirituality and connection. But how are we supposed to recreate it in our own lives? When we dream, we don’t usually see angels on ladders, and if we do, we certainly don’t behave as if we’ve just seen a new reality. How are we to emulate our ancestor when the very nature of the story feels so distant from ourselves?
In this regard, the High Holy Days offer us an opportunity to take our own rest amidst the journeys we each take. For a month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, we commemorate the Hebrew month of Elul, a time for introspection, self care, and rededication. By the time Rosh Hashanah has rolled around, we have already awoken our spiritual soul, ready to accept the work of the holy day. The Jewish people, over a 40 day period, get a kind of spiritual cleanse, in the hopes that we will return to our everyday lives with a renewed sense of purpose, commitment, and attention.
And the goal is not to attain perfection in our reality. We human beings know that perfection is beyond our scope. We don’t strive to be anything better than we could possibly be. No, the High Holy Days give us the chance to readjust our lens through which we view the world. We recalibrate, in order to be able to better see the holiness in our lives. We re-engage, in order that we might be able to bring some intention to the mundane. We recommit, in order that we can see more of the moments when God fills our life with blessings, if only we are paying attention enough to see it.
When the Cubs won the World Series, it was a moment so significant to me, to my family, to my city, that it was nearly impossible to ignore its impact. But we are surrounded by moments every single day that offer us opportunity for some of the same feelings of joy, of pride, of love, of gratitude. From the moments we share with loved ones to the opportunity to celebrate our passion for our work. From the simple to the spectacular, the High Holy Days invite us to put on our spiritual glasses, polish them up, and see the beauty that God has brought to our world.