Parshat Chaye Vayera
October 27, 2018 — 18 Cheshvan 5779
The eyes of the world were on Fenway Park and Dodger Stadium this week, but my eyes were drawn to a more interior landscape: the soul of one of the Red Sox’s star players, its pitcher, David Price. You do not have to be a baseball fan to find David Price’s interior landscape fascinating. He has historically been two very different players.
There is David Price who pitches during the regular season, where he is one of the best pitchers in the game. He is a five-time All Star. A Cy Young Award winner. He holds records for lowest earned run average, most wins, most strike outs. Because of his phenomenal success as a pitcher during the regular season, the Red Sox signed him to a franchise record gargantuan contract.
But historically there has also been David Price who pitches during the post-season, when the games count the most, where he had been spectacularly unsuccessful. In the first 11 starts of his postseason career, his record was zero wins, 9 losses. One local sportswriter observed that David Price was Mr. May—meaning that he pitched well when the games don’t count—but he was not Mr. October. He choked when the games counted.
It was against this backdrop of repeated failure in the post-season that David Price took the mound in the closing game of the American League Championship Series. He also pitched the second game of the World Series at Fenway on Wednesday night. He won both games, pitching splendidly.
So here is the question. After being in a rut for so long, how did he get out of his rut?
This question matters because many of us from time to time also find ourselves in a rut.
When we are in a rut, relationally, financially, professionally, in terms of our health or lifestyle choices, when we are stuck in that rut, how do we get out?
This question is at the heart of our Torah reading this morning. One of life’s most painful experiences of feeling stuck in a rut and you can’t get out are couples struggling with infertility. A couple dreams of starting or adding to a family. They want a baby. Every month, they try. They hope. They pray. And then, disappointment once again. Sarah experiences this. Rebecca experiences this. Rachel experiences this. Hannah experiences this.
Sarah’s story of infertility teaches us what it is like to be stuck in a rut where you think you are never going to get out.
This pattern of frustration can begin to define you. It can crowd out the rest of your story. The first time we are introduced to Sarah, here is what the Torah tells us about Sarah. Vatehi Sarai akarah ain lay valad. Now Sarai was barren, she had no child.
What a sad sentence. Not just because it relates her story of childlessness. But because her story of childlessness takes over her whole story. We know nothing else about Sarai but this fact. Did she like to paint? To cook? To walk? To read? Did she have good friends? Did she like to listen to music? What did she dream about, beyond motherhood? We have no idea. Her frustration at not having children defined her.
All too often, we see this in our world. An appositive, a descriptive phrase, conveys the most painful part of our life in a way that crowds out the rest of our story.
She is a widow. He is a widower. The defining quality is that a person who used to be a unit of two is now a unit of one.
He is a cancer patient.
She is a divorcee.
He never got married.
She is unemployed.
Sarah is barren. As if there is nothing else to Sarah.
At a certain point, people give up hope. When the angel tells Abraham and Sarah that they will have a baby, she laughs because she does not think this will ever happen.
When we think we are stuck, we are stuck.
Do you remember the children’s classic The Little Engine That Could? A long train must
be pulled over a steep mountain after its engine breaks down. Larger engines are asked to pull the train. One says no, the mountain is too steep. Another says no, the train is too heavy. But there is a little gritty engine that signs up for the job and starts pulling the train up the mountain repeating the mantra, “I think I can,” “I think I can.” When you think you can, you can.
The flip is also true. When you think you can’t, you can’t. When you think you will never find somebody to love, when you think you will never feel better, when you think you will never find a job that is satisfying, when you think you can never improve your broken relationship, all that negative energy is self-fulfilling. When you are the little engine that can’t, you can’t.
How do we get unstuck?
When we are stuck, it is always helpful to have a community behind us, a support system, people who believe in us, who don’t give up on us. David Price had that. The Red Sox did not give up on him. His manager Alex Cora continued to believe in him.
And when we are stuck, it is always helpful to study what we are doing that is not working, to make some helpful tweaks. Presumably David Price is not only a pitcher but a student of pitching and he watched game film and figured out how he could pitch better.
People who believe in us are important. Learning, growing, tweaking are important.
But the Torah offers us a third crucial ingredient. It is very simple–and for many of us modern skeptical people so hard to connect with. The odds of this not connecting with you are very high. But I want to invite you to take a second look because it will help your life if you can.
The Torah simply says: vaadonai pakad et Sarah, God remembered Sarah.
Here is what I think this means. When we feel stuck in a rut, we are stuck. And if all we had is ourselves, our own energy, our own strength, we might remain stuck.
But the Torah today invites us to tap into God as a source of new energy, new inventiveness, new possibility. We are not on the mound by ourselves. God is with us. And if God is with us, we can do more than we could by ourselves. If God is with us, we can get unstuck. God is the power to unstick.
I have a dear friend who is a part-time cantor in a synagogue not in the Boston area. He and his family are Orthodox, which is relevant to this story because in their community, women tend to get married young. 18-19-20 was an age when women were getting married. 22-23-24 was already getting on in years. He had a daughter who was 28 and unmarried. 28 in that community was almost an old maid. Not only had she danced at virtually all of her friends’ weddings. The vast majority of her friends were having two, three children, while she still could not find her partner.
Matchmakers, shadchanim, would fix her up, so she went on dates. Lots of dates. She happens to be very organized and chronicled that she went on 167 bad first dates. 167. That is a lot of bad dates.
That being the case, how would a 168th date ever feel hopeful?
But this young woman was a woman of faith. She told her father the cantor that when he was praying on Neilah, at the end of Yom Kippur, when we pour out our heart to God, keep me in your prayers. He said you are always in my prayers.
That year, she went on her 168th date, the man who became her husband. They are married for 7 years, and they are the proud parents of two children.
Faith can get us up that mountain pulling that heavy train.
Faith can turn I think I can’t into I think I can.
I don’t know what powered David Price to get unstuck. But I do know this.
When you are on the mound, pitching away, it is good to have people who believe in you and will not give up on you. It is good to learn from our past failures, and do what we do better. And it is good to realize we are not alone. God is with you, if you will be with God.
Can you tap into the divine power to get unstuck? I think we can. Shabbat shalom.