Just in time for the Phillies home opener, Rabbi Joshua Z. Gruenberg analyzes the quintessentially Jewish nature of our national pastime.
“Make for me a sanctuary, and I will dwell in their midst” — Exodus 25:8
“If you build it, he will come” — Field of Dreams
These two quotes come from quite disparate sources. The first, from the world’s all-time bestseller, tells of God’s promise to cloak the Israelites in His presence as they wandered through the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land. The second, from one of the world’s most well-known works of sports fiction, reminds us of a story of hope and determination that transcends the bounds of genres and generations.
So what, you ask, do they have to do with one another? They stand as lasting proof that baseball is the essential Jewish sport. Here’s why:
First, unlike most other sports, which are linear, baseball is a circular, cyclical game. There is no end zone or goal to reach — once you round the bases and make it home, you start the cycle all over again the next time you are up. “Hitting for the cycle” is one of the greatest accomplishments individual batsmen can achieve, “batting around” means a team has a great inning.
Jewish tradition is filled with cycles. The rhythm of our religious lives is attuned to the turning of the seasons and their attendant festivals. Our family lives are not only defined, but enriched, by the life cycle events that we commemorate, from bris to burial. It is these cycles that give Judaism its structure and its soul.
Next, other sports have a defined end, a final buzzer signaling fans to head to the parking lot. Baseball has no such thing, and a game could, at least theoretically, go on for days. Any synagogue attendee who has sat in a less-than-enthralling sermon knows all about pastimes that flirt with forever.
Last, baseball is the quintessential team sport. In other team sports, sometimes all it takes is one legend — one Gretzky, one Jordan, one Pele — to carry the team to greatness. In baseball, all nine players on the field at any given time have to pull together to achieve success.
No matter how many Halladays or Hamels you have on the mound, you still need a Chooch to be there to catch the ball. In fact, baseball’s most coveted accomplishment, the aptly named “perfect game,” can only be achieved if the pitcher is perfect (no runs, no hits, no walks) and if his teammates are likewise error-free.
Judaism is no different. To be sure, an individual Jew can find meaningful ways to experience the ritual and the spiritual, but we are at our best, at our most Jewish selves, when we share our trials and triumphs with our fellow Red Sea pedestrians. Granted, without Moses, the Israelites never would have made it out of the dugout of slavery, but without the Israelites, Moses would have just been some nomadic nut job schmoozing with a smoldering shrub.
So as a new season begins, whether you find yourself in an Iowa cornfield, an Egyptian desert or Ashburn Alley, always remember the adage of old — there is no crying in Judaism.
Rabbi Joshua Z. Gruenberg is the rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Yardley.