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The Improbable is Possible, Rosh HaShanah Eve 5780


Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, AZ

L’Shana Tovah. Most of you know that I am a slightly obsessed baseball fan. I have loved the sport all my life, and find within it the essence of nearly everything that matters in this world. I live and slightly die with the fortunes of my beloved Los Angeles Dodgers, who have broken my heart every year since their last world championship in 1988, when the world and I were both much younger. But perhaps this will finally be the year we win the World Series.

I can probably tell you more about the history of baseball than I can tell you about Jewish history. That is disturbing in a rabbi, especially one who studied history and teaches it, but it is surprisingly common. Most rabbis you meet turn out to be huge baseball fans. I think it’s because baseball, like the Torah, lends itself to dramatic narratives of success, failure and redemption. Players soar to the heights of great success, and then fall to earth suddenly; you hit a home run in the first inning and strike out your next four times up. You get cut or traded this year, and then suddenly emerge as an All-Star the next season. Or the opposite happens. This kind of see-saw experience is more typical than not in baseball. In a sport where a success rate of 30% qualifies you for the Hall of Fame, even the very best fail quite often. It’s like Moses, sort of: you climb to the top of Mt. Sinai, but shortly thereafter you end up back at the bottom of the mountain with broken tablets and a Golden Calf. And so you start that climb all over again, and who knows what will happen? [Maybe this time those Israelites finally get the message…]

That unpredictability is what makes sports endlessly fascinating to me. Now, you could take my ex-wife’s perspective on it; she’d say, “Why do you care about this game? They are going to play again next year.” True, but kind of not the point. Because each of those games is unique, and you never really know what the result will be. Which is exactly the point.

In baseball, more than in any other sport, literally anything can happen in one ballgame or series, let alone in an entire seven-month-long season. Possibilities are nearly endless—as are some baseball games these days, given the hordes of relief pitchers used. Still, it’s exciting, for when you go to the ballpark, or turn on the TV or stream a game or listen to Sirius XM you don’t know if you are going to experience a no-hitter or an 11-10 slugfest over 13 innings. Anything really can happen.

Which brings me to my favorite old-timey story this year, about a baseball player named Gaylord Perry. Perry was an excellent pitcher back in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, and he went on to win the top pitching honor, the Cy Young Award, in both major leagues before retiring and being elected to the Hall of Fame.

Now, in addition to being a great pitcher, Gaylord Perry was also a famously terrible hitter. His lifetime batting average was .133, almost impossibly bad. But one day in the mid-1960s, early in his career, he was taking batting practice and atypically whacking the ball, and a baseball reporter turned to Perry’s manager, Alvin Dark, and said, “You know, that Perry has some power!”

His manager responded, “Let me tell you something: a man will land on the moon before Gaylord Perry hits a home run.” And through the middle of the 1969 season Gaylord Perry had never hit a big-league home run during seven years in the majors that included over 500 at bats. No homers.

And then on July 20, 1969, 50 years and two months ago, at 1:17pm Pacific Daylight Time, Neil Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface. 30 minutes later, in a baseball game between Gaylord Perry’s San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers, pitcher Claude Osteen threw a fastball down the middle, and Gaylord Perry hit it out of the park for his very first home run.

His manager, Alvin Dark had moved to another team by then, but he certainly could have said, "Hey, technically speaking, we did put a man on the moon before you hit a home run." By half an hour… I mean it, anything can happen.

My all-time favorite example of this took place 31 years ago. In 1988, my LA Dodgers were definitely not the best team in baseball. The two years prior to 1988 they had losing records, and the next year they would again have a losing record. But that year everything came together, several players had career years, and they made the playoffs. They were heavy underdogs in the league championship series, with many key players injured by the end of the season, especially their Most Valuable Player, Kirk Gibson, who seriously hurt both legs. But this underdog team pulled off upset victories to reach the World Series. There they faced the hugely favored Oakland A’s, the super team of the era. No one gave them a chance.

And when they trailed in the bottom of the ninth inning of the first game of the World Series and the Oakland A’s magnificent closer, Dennis Eckersley—he’s in the Hall of Fame now—was brought in by the A’s Hall of Fame Manager, Tony LaRussa, all seemed lost. With two outs, Dodgers’ manager Tommy Lasorda called on a man who wasn’t supposed to play at all, Kirk Gibson; in fact, Gibson was so banged up that he literally could not run. If he hit the ball on the ground he’d be out no matter what, and the Dodgers would lose. And the pitcher, Eckersley, was considered unhittable.

Gibson, badly injured, limped up to the plate and battled through the at-bat. He was down to his last strike, and then swinging with one hand Kirk Gibson shockingly homered to win that opening game. The Dodgers’ nonpareil announcer Vin Scully captured the moment perfectly; he said, “In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened.”

That was Kirk Gibson’s only at bat in the World Series. Yet the Dodgers went on to win the championship easily. No one predicted that.

Vin Scully, that great Torah sage, put it perfectly, “In a year that has been so improbable the impossible has happened.”

Which brings me, at last, to the High Holy Days. You see, the connection is not that the World Series always used to coincide with Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur—if you are of a certain age you might remember fans using transistor radios with earpieces during the Days of Awe to listen to games. And there are those old, true stories of Sandy Koufax, Hank Greenberg and Shawn Green sitting out games on the High Holy Days. Anyway, nowadays, with the extended seasons and extra playoffs the World Series is much more likely to fall on Simchat Torah.

You see, there’s one very Jewish thing about baseball that I will always love. It’s that truly anything can happen, certainly the improbable, even the impossible.

But that’s true for much more than baseball, isn’t it? In any given year virtually anything at all can happen. If the past few years have taught us anything, here in America and around the world, it’s certainly that. My goodness, anything, however improbable, even the impossible, can happen.

Being Jews, we often assume that any unexpected things that occur will be bad, probably very bad. After 2,000 years of persecution we have internalized this, and assume that anything unpredictable is very likely to be disastrous. You know, like the old Jewish telegram: Start Worrying. Details to follow.

[And of course, this past year of 5779 we saw two synagogues attacked right here in America, murderous actions in which Jews were killed during services. That was something new, and quite terrible, that had never before happened in the United States. So our fears of the what’s possible are sometimes grimly confirmed.]

But while there’s an element of truth to that, there is something much greater at work that supersedes our habitual, tribal pessimism. For if Jewish history proves anything, it proves that everything really is possible; bad, yes, but also great good. And that is particularly true on this first day of the new year.

Tradition tells us that our ancestor Joseph was freed from prison in Egypt on Rosh HaShanah, and in almost no time he rose meteorically from the lowest depths to the greatest heights, from a slave in the dungeon to ruling from the palace. That rise was the first of many incredible reversals for our people, moments when the improbable became likely and the impossible became real. Moses was a fugitive from justice and a shepherd in the desert who sees a bush on fire in the wilderness and rises to become the greatest leader our people has ever had. David had to flee for his life and became an outlaw, only to return as the eternal king of Israel, David Melech Yisrael.

And for all the traumas we’ve collectively suffered over the millennia, our people been gifted with great reversals of fortune, too. When we stood at the shores of the Red Sea with the army closing behind us things were bleak indeed. And then the water opened and we crossed into safety, freedom and covenant. When the First Temple was destroyed and we were dragged into exile in Babylonia the end of our existence was in sight. And then suddenly our conquerors were upended and we were permitted to go home to Israel and rebuild our country and our Temple. Our ancestors faced vicious state persecution and pogroms in the Pale of Settlement and landed in America as refugees with nothing but dreams—yet we have written a tale of amazing Jewish successes all across the United States. And, of course, out of the ashes of the Holocaust we arose to create the first independent Jewish country in 1800 years, Israel, and see it flourish as a dynamic modern democratic nation. What could have looked less likely during the rise of Nazism in the world? And yet, that apparent miracle really happened, and is a central part of our identity today.

You see, it’s not just baseball that teaches us that anything is possible. It’s Jewish history, too.

So, rabbi, what does that mean for me on Rosh HaShanah? I’m not a baseball fan, you say, and history is something that happened a long time ago. What does that mean for me, now? What is the message here, already?

It’s this: that at this moment, in this infant new year just begun, anything really is possible. The improbable can become real, and the impossible just might happen. No matter how hard things may seem at this moment, no matter how challenging conditions are, no matter how depressed you might feel about your life, or our nation, or Israeli politics, or the environment, or your relationships, or your kids, or your parents, and no matter how sure you are that nothing will really ever change, I promise you: change can happen. Change will happen. This is the time when we are impelled—even commanded—to realize that anything can happen. We have both the right and the need to embrace that on Rosh HaShanah. And Rosh HaShanah is the start of a period of intense openness, the time of Teshuvah, when anything truly can happen.

We have a Jewish responsibility to be open to all possibility. Because our God, that Jewish God, is the God of infinite possibility. And the New Year is the time to welcome that great, sacred potential for change, for the truly new.

My friends, things truly can change for you in this new year of 5780. Indeed, they will change. On this Rosh HaShanah we sanctify the threshold between now and what comes next—and what comes next is a year in which every moment gleams with infinite promise.

May these Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, these Ten Days of Return, help each of us—you, me, everyone—to realize that this is a world created by God to allow anything to happen. It is our great task to recognize that, embrace it, and seek to make these new things, this new year, truly good.

L’Shana Tovah Tikateivu v’Teichateimu—may you write yourself into the book of life, goodness, and blessing.

 

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