September 15, 2018 — 6 Tishri 5778
Last month something very rare happened. Mookie Betts of the Boston Red Sox hit for the cycle. Hitting for the cycle means that Betts hit a single, a double, a triple, and a homer in the same game. Hitting for the cycle is very uncommon—which is why it generated a lot of press at the time.
Curiously enough, though much was written about his feat, there was one thing that most baseball observers failed to mention. The night that Mookie Bets hit for the cycle was the night before Rosh Hodesh Elul. That is not a coincidence. That is karma. Hitting for the cycle is an apt metaphor for the important spiritual work we all need to do between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
What is the spiritual resonance of hitting a single, a double, a triple and a homer in the same life?
Hitting a single means making it with our own nuclear family, our own family of origin. We hit a single when we have loving relationships with our parents and grandparents; with our brothers and sisters and their spouses; with our nieces and nephews.
But it is not automatic. It is not automatic that a hitter gets to first base. It is not automatic that we have warm, loving, beautiful relationships with our nuclear family. What work do we need to do to get to first base? What relationship, in our own family, needs repair?
I still remember being in the pews at Temple Emanuel when Rabbi Chiel, may he rest in peace, shared the story that his father, a saintly chazan, would sincerely apologize to his family members in this season. They would say: Papa, you are so gentle. You are so kind. You are a loving chazan and family man. You didn’t hurt us. To which Rabbi Chiel’s father would say: we sometimes hurt people closest to us without even realizing it.
If we cannot get to first, if we cannot hit a single, did we hurt somebody close to us without even realizing it? If so, what do we need to do now to repair what is broken?
Let’s say that we do the repair work we need to do, and we are good with our family of origin. Then we are ready to hit a double. Hitting a double means creating a family of our own. That is a lifelong project.
It means surrounding yourself with chosen family, a life partner or dear friends who will walk with you through the years. The through the years part is hard. Are we able to sustain the friendships that we made in college or graduate school when life changes so dramatically with the passage of time, and we are not the same, and our friends are not the same? A relationship’s deepening over the years rather than drifting is also a challenge for marriage. In her book Married People: Staying Together in the Age of Divorce, Francine Klagsbrun studies long-term married couples, couples who have been married 40, 50, 60 and more years. What, if anything, did these marriages have in common?
All the long-term married couples had one crucial thing in common. Both partners realized that successful long-term marriage is made up of different chapters. In fact, each chapter can be very different from the next. Money, jobs, parents, children, health, the kaleidoscope of life’s challenges is ever changing, and married couples are able to commit and recommit to each other through all the changes that life brings.
If we are struggling to hit a double, if we are struggling to sustain a happy family that we create, what work do we need to do to keep our marriage strong, and our other lifelong friendships strong, as life unfolds in unpredictable ways?
To hit that double also means leaving a legacy for the next generation. When the shema says v’shinantam levanekha, teach your children, Rashi interprets that as a charge for all people to find students and disciples to mentor. Share your truths with the next generation. For those couples who are blessed to raise children, we know that parenthood, like marriage itself, presents that kaleidoscope of ever-changing challenges. In his classic Far From the Tree, Andrew Solomon tells us something we all already know, but he gives us some helpful context: namely, that often children are very different from their parents. Solomon explains it this way: who a child becomes is a function of two different identities–what he calls vertical and horizontal identity. Vertical identity means the values that your children receive from you, their parents. You do Shabbat, they do Shabbat. You love Israel, they love Israel. You care about social justice, they care about social justice. Horizontal identity means the values that your children get not from you. Horizontal identity can mean the friends they meet in college or in our wider culture or the myriad ways that our children are their own people, and that their DNA is different from ours. There is vertical identity, the values that our children get from us; there is horizontal identity, the values that are internal to their own biology or to the world they seek; and often there is a creative tension between these two identities.
If we want to hit that double, we have to be at peace with who our children turn out to be.
Solomon is quite to the point here: “There is no such thing as reproduction, only production.” What work do we need to do to be at peace with who our children are? This is a metric that I find personally helpful. I did not come up with it. A friend of mine came up with it. But I find it true. She says what we want from our adult children is that they are healthy, happy, and talking to us. What internal work do we need to do to be deeply at peace with our children as they are?
Up next in the cycle is hitting a triple. What is a triple in life? It means giving time, energy, money, to some larger, worthy cause. Some community of meaning is better off because of you. A school is better off. A shul is better off. Israel is better off. CJP is better off. Cancer research is better off. Understanding and treating mental illness is better off. Your alma matter is better off.
To make a real difference for any of these large, worthy causes is really hard, and it is worth pausing on Shabbat Shuva to ponder this. Often we feel maxed out just trying to be there for our family members, just trying to get our job done, just to trying to make it to the end of the day. How are we supposed to do all that and, in addition, make a real difference to cancer research or CJP or Israel or Temple Emanuel or your alma mater?
I have done many funerals over the years for people who got to first base, and they got to second base. They had very rich family lives. They loved and were loved, deeply. But at the end of their days, when you ask their children and grandchildren: tell me about your father, your mother, your grandparent, they would say: our parent or grandparent was all about family. Family was their life.
That is lovely. That is beautiful. It’s just not a triple. It’s just different. Do you want your epitaph to read: Family was their life. That is a rich and beautiful life, to have a spouse and siblings and children and grandchildren and great grandchildren with whom you shared love. This is a real question, not a rhetorical question. Will you feel fulfilled if you hit a single and a double but not a triple, or will you feel somehow stranded at second, that there was impact you could have had beyond your family? There is no right or wrong answer to this question. But the question should be asked, and if not now, on the Shabbat before Yom Kippur, when? And if you want to hit a triple, but you have not yet, here are two questions for you. What cause are you going to contribute to? Marinate on that question during services. Where will I direct my energy? And what incremental things can you do, small things, practical things, to begin to make that difference?
Which leads to the homer. A home run, spiritually speaking, means that because of how you have lived your life, you have made God’s presence immanent in this world. Somebody sees how you live, how ethical you are in the marketplace, how caring and respectful you are with other people, they know that you take Judaism seriously, and they connect the two, how you live, and your Jewish life that is the source of how you live.
I will never forget what Barry Shrage said in his eulogy for Rabbi Chiel. Barry said that over the years he had heard a common troupe from many people. They would say: I’m not a God person. I don’t believe in God. But I do believe in Rabbi Chiel. I see how he acts. And how he acts is apparently motivated by this invisible God he believes in. It makes me want to try to believe too. If somebody looks at you, and wants to believe too, that is a homerun.
That is hitting for the cycle. A single means you made it with your family of origin. A double means you have created and sustained your own family. A triple means you are making a difference to some larger community of meaning. And a homer means that how you live testifies to the existence of God and the wisdom of the Torah that God has given us.
Our tradition assumes that we get stranded somewhere. That it is the very rare time in our life when we feel like we are hitting a single, a double, a triple and a homer in the same game. That is why there is a meta cycle. That meta cycle is called Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is literally a cycle built into our life because God knows that hitting for the cycle is an ideal that we seldom if ever achieve.
So today, on Shabbat Shuva, let’s ask ourselves: where are we stranded, what base are we not getting to, and what are we going to do about it? You are up, and the bat is in your hands.