When asked for your latest source of spiritual inspiration, does the baseball field come to mind? The chessboard? I would bet not. I assume that the answers you think a Rabbi wants to hear are the shul, the siddur and the Torah.
Our sages teach, “Who is wise? One who learns from every person” (Ethics of Our Fathers 4:1). This is also true for events in life. The holy Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement, would always say, “From everything that a Jew sees or hears, he is to derive a lesson in his service of G-d.
I grew up in Crown Heights, a small section of Brooklyn, New York, it was the previous home of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Walking down Empire Boulevard, I always saw people pointing to a large apartment building complex and saying that “this used to be Ebbets field, home of the Dodgers.” Growing up in the late 1980s, the Dodgers were a thing of the past and the Yankees in the Bronx and the Mets in Queens competed for our attention.
Today, when the baseball season begins again, I always think about a story I heard from an elder gentleman from Crown Heights, Rabbi Shimshon Stock Ob’m. As a child, I always felt bad for Rabbi Stock, who has grandchildren that live here in Cincinnati, as I always saw him collecting money. I figured he was very poor. When I got older, I found out that he was a successful businessman and he was actually collecting money to feed the needy families in the neighborhood.
Once, he saw me and my friends playing baseball. He came over and said that he wants to share an insight with us, that he personally heard from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, about baseball. We were all ears. He told us the following story:
“In 1955, we were all fans of the Brooklyn Dodgers. I had a friend whose son was becoming Bar-Mitzvah and he was a real die-hard fan. He would eat, sleep and dream baseball. When it came the time before his Bar Mitzvah, Rabbi Stock introduced him to the Rebbe. The boy was expecting to be asked about his Torah learning etc., but instead the Rebbe went directly to the game of baseball. The Rebbe asked him if he ever attended a professional baseball game. ‘We were at a game a month ago,’ the boy replied, and added that ‘It was disappointing. By the sixth inning, the Dodgers were losing nine-to-two, so we decided to leave.’
“Did the players also leave the game when you left? asked the Rebbe. ‘Rabbi,’ the boy responded loudly, ‘the players can’t leave in the middle of the game! There are players and fans,’ continued the young fan. ‘The fans can leave when they like, they’re not part of the game and the game continues after they leave. But the players need to stay until the game is over and try to win.’
“‘That is the lesson I want to teach you in Judaism,’ said the Rebbe with a smile. ‘You can be either a fan or a player. Be a player.’ The Rebbe summed up the conversation with a lesson, when you are Davening and putting on Tefillin you are a player in the ballgame.”
This seemingly cute and simple story had a profound impact on me and my outlook on being Jewish. I knew that I had to be “in it to win it” and quitting my commitments were not an option. I was a player on G-d Almighty’s professional team, and I need to stay until the end. Many people ask me, when they see me on the street or in the store, if I am an “observant jew.” I always respond, based on this story, that I try not to observe Judaism. When I see the shocked looks on their faces, I smile and continue: I work very hard that I should not be just an observer, fan, of Judaism – rather a practicing and involved Jew.
This is a deep lesson, not only for our involvement in Judaism, but for many aspects of our lives. Whether it is in our marriage, our relationships with our children and families, our education or our jobs, we must constantly ask ourselves if we are just an adoring fan – that feels that we can quit if things get tough – or are we players on the team of life.
“Let’s play ball!”