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.
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.