Last week I was listening to an interview given by former major league baseball player, Rick Ankiel. For those who do not remember or who have never heard of him, Ankiel was quite a good young pitcher at the beginning of his career and it looked like he had a good career ahead of him. And then, all of a sudden, in the 2000 playoffs, he completely lost his ability to throw the ball over the plate. He was wild, and he could not stop. Ankiel threw nine wild-pitches in four innings. He tried fixing his problems in the minors and tried a number of things to change the way that he threw. In the interview, he reflected that his issue was a mental thing, and you can’t fix it with mechanics. It had me wondering: can one address a physical problem with the body with a mental or spiritual solution?
The Rema* teaches (O.H 6:1) that it is completely wondrous that human beings have a divine soul that is protected inside of their body. It is truly amazing that we have a spiritual essence connected inside of our physical matter. The Sfas Emes** explains (Tazria/Metzora 5641) that the soul was created first during the creation of the world. And only after the soul was created, then the body. Therefore, one needs to understand that he/she first purifies and cleanses the body, then the soul can visibly shine through. The first step is to fix our material reality, and then we can achieve greater spiritual heights. This is reflected in the opening midrash (Lev. Rab. 14:1) on our Parshiyot, Tzaria and Metzorah, “[it] is written, ‘You have created me behind and before [Psalms 139:5].’ Said Rabbi Yochanan: If man merits, he inherits two worlds, this one and the coming one, that's what is written: ‘You have created me behind and before (front).’ And if not, he comes to give reckoning, as it says, "And You laid your hand on me." [ibid], as it is written, [Job 13:21] ‘Withdraw your hand far from me.’/ דִכְתִיב (תהלים קלט:ה): אָחוֹר וָקֶדֶם צַרְתָּנִי, אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן אִם זָכָה אָדָם נוֹחֵל שְׁנֵי עוֹלָמוֹת, הַזֶּה וְהַבָּא, הֲדָא הוּא דִכְתִיב: אָחוֹר וָקֶדֶם צַרְתָּנִי, וְאִם .לָאו בָּא לִתֵּן דִּין .וְחֶשְׁבּוֹן, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (תהלים קלט:ה): וַתָּשֶׁת עָלַי כַּפֶּכָה, כְּדִכְתִיב (איוב יג:כא): כַּפְּךָ מֵעָלַי הַרְחַק” If we do not live a life of Torah, mitzvot and good deeds, then we are only left vulnerable to the harshness of this world. However, if we make this world a better place through our learning and our actions, then we inherit a world above and beyond our own. First you clean the vase, then you can see and nurture the beauty inside.
As we approach Yom Ha’Aztmaut, this teaching is an important reminder of the need and value of our own state. Ahad Ha’Am^ envisioned the purpose of our settlement in our land, “This Jewish settlement, which will be a gradual growth, will become in course of time the centre of the nation, wherein its spirit will find pure expression and develop in all its aspects up to the highest degree of perfection of which it is capable (The Jewish State and the Jewish Problem).” First, we address the Jewish body--the need and desire for our land. Then, we address the Jewish soul within it.
On the one hand, Ankiel is right. There are no physical solutions to a mental problem. He had to address his struggles with anxiety before being able to attempt a remarkable comeback that saw him play several seasons in the majors--though as an outfielder, not a pitcher. And yet, for many of us, our challenge is a different one. We have to make sure that our bodies work so that they can work not only for us, but for the world around us. This week, we should challenge ourselves to think: how can I help make the physical world around me better and cleaner? If we succeed, then we will be able to see beyond what is right in front of our eyes; we will see that God’s light is truly in every person and every thing.
*Moses Isserles (February 22, 1520 / Adar I 25, 5290 – May 11, 1572 / Iyar 18, 5332) was an eminent Polish Ashkenazic rabbi, talmudist, and posek.
**Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (15 April 1847 – 11 January 1905), also known by the title of his main work, the Sfas Emes (Yiddish) or Sefat Emet שפת אמת (Hebrew), was a Hasidic rabbi who succeeded his grandfather, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter, as the Av beis din (head of the rabbinical court) and Rav of Góra Kalwaria, Poland (known in Yiddish as the town of Ger), and succeeded Rabbi Chanokh Heynekh HaKohen Levin of Aleksander as Rebbe of the Gerrer Hasidim.
^Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg (18 August 1856 – 2 January 1927), primarily known by his Hebrew name and pen name, Ahad Ha'am (Hebrew: אחד העם, lit. one of the people, Genesis 26:10), was a Hebrew essayist, and one of the foremost pre-state Zionist thinkers. He is known as the founder of cultural Zionism.
The greatest baseball movie of all time is objectively Bull Durham. Of course it stars Kevin Costner, and it also co-stars Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins. In the film, Kevin Costner plays a catcher named Crash Davis, who is nearing the end of his career and is asked to play for a minor league team so that he can mentor a future pitching star named Nuke Laloosh (Tim Robbins). One of the last lessons that Crash teaches Nuke, is that to succeed in baseball, one has to have both “fear and arrogance.” How is it that these completely opposite approaches are the key to baseball?
In this week’s Parsha, Parshat Shmini, Aaron’s Priesthood officially begins. Moses says to Aaron, “Draw near to the altar/קְרַב אֶל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ (Ex.9:7).” The question is, why does Moses have to invite Aaron to step forward in the first place? Rashi explains (quoting a classical Midrash) the need for this interaction. He teaches (SV ad loc.) that Aaron was bashful and afraid to approach the altar. Moses then says, “Why so bashful?!? You were chosen for this!”
The Noam Elimelekh* teaches (SV ad loc.) that the bashfulness that Rashi brings up is an essential character trait for a person to have and that it is a good sign/סימן טוב for a person if he/she has this trait. If one is generally hesitant, then he/she will not be quick to run towards mistakes. Thus Aaron becomes an example for us here as he gives up his confidence. So too, (even, or perhaps especially!) the righteous one/tzaddik/צדיק is always looking inward and seeing in himself/herself room for correction. This perspective trains the Tzaddik to always be entertaining thoughts of return and repentance/teshuva/תשובה. The goal here is not to be anxious all of the time and always feeling in the wrong. The teaching of the Noam Elimelekh is pushing us to constantly engage in self-reflection which will in turn drive us towards personal and spiritual growth.
Yet this cannot be the sole approach. We learn in Pirkei Avot that “the bashful one does not learn/אין הביישן למד (mAvot 2:5).” One should never shy away from asking questions. It is the only way we can learn. Last week we began Passover/Pesah with Seders that are famously oriented around questions and expounding on their answers. The Seders are not the only time to ask. There are no stupid questions. You cannot receive what you do not ask for.
Raise those hands, ask those questions. Constantly reflect on your actions and strive for greatness. This week, let us internalize the lessons of Crash Davis. The secret to success in life, as is baseball, is both “fear and arrogance.”
*Elimelech Weisblum of Lizhensk (1717–March 11, 1787), a Rabbi and one of the great founding Rebbes of the Hasidic movement, was known after his hometown, Leżajsk (Yiddish: ליזשענסק-Lizhensk) near Rzeszów in Poland.
A number of years ago, I started working at Camp Ramah in New England. I was a Division Head/Rosh Edah for a group of teens heading into 10th grade. I was new to the camp and did not previously know any of my campers. After a few days, I noticed that I was fairly upset about how the summer was going. I called a meeting one morning so I could address my campers directly. I told them that I was getting dozens of calls per day from specialists around the camp telling me that ‘this camper’ or ‘that camper’ was missing. I was running around all day looking for them and constantly being told that my group was difficult and a bunch of other negative words. I told my campers that it made me sad to be hearing these things about them. I told them that I serve as their parent for the summer and it was difficult to hear only negative things about the kids in my care. I told them they had to change and get with the program. And that I cared deeply about them and only wanted good things for them and to hear good things about them. After the meeting, I heard from a number of the teens. They were confused. I didn’t even know them. Why did I care so much?
This Shabbat is called the Great Shabbat/Shabbat HaGadol. The question is, why is it called that? The Sfas Emes (Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter, the Gerrer Rebbe, Poland 1847-1905) teaches (Shabbat HaGadol 5637) that there are two different approaches to Shabbat. One is to see the week as something that we just need to get through. I have work or school or tasks that I am obligated to do. And on Shabbat, I get to take a break from that. So, if I do everything I need to do, and I do not succumb to vices, then, I merrit a little Shabbat/Shabbat HaKatan. But there is another approach. If I live my week with the awareness that there is nothing that inherently enslaves me other than my acceptance of the yoke of heaven; that I live in service of God and Torah and that I am supposed to do good in the world, then something else happens on Shabbat. I become one who serves completely out of love, just like Jacob as he served all those years out of love for Rachel. It wasn’t work for him. It was a pure expression of love. That is what Shabbat HaGadol should feel like.
Essentially, this is a matter of orientation. One orientation motivates through negativity and fear. I have to do my work and not slip up in my life, and then I earn the little Shabbat. And the other orientation is about positivity and love. The Sfas Emes points out that these two orientations are found in our calendar. On Shabbat Teshuva, between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, we are thinking about our actions. Did I do enough good? Do I deserve to be in the Book of Life? And here on Shabbat HaGadol, we are moved purely out of love. God saved us and brought us out of slavery for no reason. Just because God loves us.
My campers from my first summer were confused about my approach and style. “We know we are difficult,” some would say. Others would add “you barely know us.” “Why do you care about us?” I told them that they did not have to earn my care and love. They get that automatically. This time of year is about unconditional love. We do not have to earn freedom. We get is just because of who we are. God loves us just because of who we are. As we prepare for Pesah and the Seders, let us try and live with this orientation. We don’t need to feel that we have earned God’s love. It is ours no matter what. May this love be felt in all of your homes and in all the homes of Israel.
Rabbi Ezra Balser has been the rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom since July 1, 2016. He received his “smicha” (ordination) in June 2017 from Hebrew College while also earning a Master’s Degree in Jewish Studies. He has also received the iCenter's Certification in Israel Education.