Hank Greenberg was arguably the greatest Jewish baseball player of all time. Born, Hyman Greenberg, in 1911, he played first base for the Detroit Tigers in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Known also as “Hammerin’ Hank Greenberg and “Hankus Pankus”, Greenberg is a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. In 1934, Greenberg, his team in the middle of the American League pennant race, famously refused to play on Yom Kippur. Greenberg wrote in his biography, “The team was fighting for first place, and I was probably the only batter in the lineup who was not in a slump. But in the Jewish religion, it is traditional that one observe the holiday solemnly, with prayer.” His refusal to play on Yom Kippur was immortalized in a poem by Edward Guest which goes as follows:
“Came Yom Kippur — [holy-fast -day] world-wide-over to the Jew,
And Hank Greenberg to his teaching and the old tradition true
Spent the day among his people and he didn’t come to play.
Said Murphy to Mulrooney, ‘We shall lose the game today!
We shall miss him on the infield and shall miss him at the bat
But he’s true to his religion — and I honor him for that!'”
There has always been a special relationship between Jews and baseball. Jewish lore has it that in 1903 when the young Talmudic scholar Louis Ginzberg joined the faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary, he was advised by the legendary Chancellor Solomon Schecter to master baseball. “You can’t be a rabbi in America without understanding baseball,” said Schecter to his protégée. Ginzberg went on to master both the Talmud and baseball! Over a century ago the Yiddish language newspaper The Jewish Daily Forward told its readers, in an advice column entitled Bintel Brief : “Let children play the “wild American game [of baseball]…Don’t let your child grow up a stranger in his own country.” – A wise exhortation to the millions of European Jewish immigrants arriving to the shores of the United States eager to learn how to become Americans.
The writer Jeffery Tobin identified a more profound reason for the affinity of Jews to the game of baseball. : “Baseball is a game that can break your heart, and to a people whose history has had more than its share of sadness, it was a perfect fit.” Do we need to look any further to explain the love Jewish Chicagoans have had for the once hapless Chicago Cubs?
There are other similarities between the sport of Baseball and the Jewish people. At the conclusion of the Passover seder, we say “Next Year in Jerusalem.” And at the conclusion of the Baseball season – or more realistically for Cubs fans at the All Star Break – aren’t we accustomed to saying “There’s always next year!” Then there’s a Chasidic teaching that says that if all Jews in the world kept the Sabbath for only one Shabbat, the Messiah would come. In Chicago it has been widely accepted that if the Cubs ever won the World Series, it would be a sign that the Mashiach would be hard on the heels of the victory!
It seems to me perfectly fitting that the Cubs won the World Series the week that we are reading Parasha Noah. As you know, the Torah tells us that violence has spread across the world and G-d regrets that He created it. G-d decides to destroy the world, but Noah finds favor in G-d’s eyes. G-d commands Noah to build and ark to save himself, his family, and other flora and fauna in order to begin again following the destruction of the flood. Noah does so. Then the Torah says, “Noah and his wife, and his sons and his daughters-in-law entered the ark because of the rain.” Rashi seizes upon this final clause “because of the rain”. Rashi asks, “Didn’t Noah enter the Ark because G-d commanded him to do so? What is this “because of the rain?” Rashi concludes that this teaches us that Noah didn’t really believe that G-d would bring a flood to destroy the earth. Despite all the preparations in building the ark and collecting the plants and animals, Noah wasn’t really sure that that G-d would do what G-d said He would do. Sometimes Noah thought it would happen, sometimes he doubted it would happen, but it wasn’t until it started to pour that Noah decided he better get everyone into the ark. He didn’t get into that ark until circumstances forced him to. He was a man, says Rashi, of “mekatnei emunah” – he had little faith. Some say that Noah did not really believe there would be a flood that would destroy the world until he was up to his knees in water. Some say he did not believe it until he was up to his waist in water! Then it was like, “This looks like it is really going to happen. We better get into that Ark!”
Isn’t that just like us Cubs fans? This past Sunday morning I met with our 8th through 10thgraders during Sunday school. One student sheepishly asked me a question. Rabbi, do the Cubs still have a chance to win the World Series? This is the morning after the Cubs lost game four and are down 3-1. It was time for THE RABBI to offer some spiritual guidance! Of course they can still win, I said. First, they have to win Sunday night. If they do that, and they win on Tuesday night, there will be a seventh game, and who knows what could happen. To be a Jew is to never give up hope!
Of course, for Cubs fans, with our long, tormented history, we, like Noah, have little faith! It was hard to believe. Even though they had the best regular season record in baseball, it was hard to believe. Even when they forced a seventh game, it was hard to believe. Even when they were up 5-1 late in the game, it was hard to believe. It was especially hard to believe when the Indians tied it at six in the bottom of the eighth! It was just as hard to believe when the Cubs went up by two in the top of the tenth. How many Chicagoans were convinced with a certainly surpassing all certainties that the Indians would score three in their half of the inning and win the World Series? Like Noah needing to be up to his knees in water before he believed it was happening, we didn’t believe the Cubs would or could win until the third out was firmly in the glove of first baseman Rizzo.
The Rabbis teach that there is no happier day on the calendar than Yom Kippur. This is because on Yom Kippur we are finally judged, and, “Ein Simcha Ka-Hatarot Sefeikot – “there is no greater happiness than release from doubt”. Noah was released from doubt when the flood finally came. We, Chicago Cubs fans, are released from doubt now that the drought is finally over. May we find many more reasons for happiness in the years to come.