Many people say that in order to find serenity, peace, and prayer with G-d, they need to be in a quiet and personal place. They say that this helps them stay focused and maintaining kavanah without distractions. I have been writing in previous blogs about Jewish sports fans. Many of us have been in that situation: we have an event we need to get to in time for an opening pitch or the tip-off, or we are at a sports event enjoying being with our friends and rooting for our team. And just at that moment, we are asked to help out. I experienced this over Passover at the start of the new baseball season at a Yankees game, and the experience of simultaneously juggling two things I love inspired me to write about this universal experience for so many Jewish sports fans.
At many sporting events, there are signs near a Kosher food stand that say something like “Maariv during seventh inning” or “Mincha at the end of third quarter.” On this particular Chol Hamoed April night, my cousin Ezra and I had a chance to reconnect. I have many crazy sports fans, especially die-hard Yankees fans, among my many cousins, uncles and aunts, but among them Ez is unique. There are photos of him holding me as a baby wearing a Jason Giambi Yankees T-Shirt, and he and his dad started me off with an appreciation for how to play the game and essential rules of Yankee fandom and sports trivia. Ezra has been studying in Yeshivah for a year before attending college, but he decided instead to return to Israel permanently and make Aliyah. He will be attending a Hesder Yeshiva at the end of the summer and within months he will start TzaHal (the IDF) as a ‘Chayal Boded’ or ‘Lone Soldier.’ So, when people saw Ez’s Kippah and the Tzitzit dangling from his jeans as he and I discussed how the Yanks might overtake the Blue Jays, the fans nearby asked Ezra to help them make a seventh inning minyan to daven Maariv. He obliged, and a classmate and I decided to tag along with Ez and my Uncle Barry.
To give you a feel for the experience, I need to say that it was a classic April night ballgame, meaning that this evening was beyond frigid. The attendance was in the 20,000s, a depressing stat that registered as the lowest attendance at a Yankees game since 2004. As we walked toward the Kosher stand against the strong gusts of 40 degree winds, I realized that I didn’t have a siddur on me. But that’s when Pocket iSiddur came through for me! iPhone in hand, I joined the minyan as we went through Barchu, the Shema, Amidah, and Aleinu, all in time for the next inning. Now, we definitely drew some strange looks from people who weren’t familiar with the tradition of gathering for a minyan at a sports event, and it was new for me to adjust to those confused stares since it was the combo of my having just turned bar mitzvah and Ez’s encouragement that brought me into the group of guys who were shuckling to both keep warm and recite their prayers. However, it was worth it, because I was able to do two of my favorite things at the same time: pray to G-d with other people who matter to me and take in a nice, close baseball game.
At the time the minyan started, the Yankees were trailing the Blue Jays 2-0 in the seventh inning, which was extra frustrating because of how frigid the weather was and how limited the snack options at the stadium were due to Passover chametz constraints. Was it due to dumb luck, or perhaps because of G-d answering our prayers recited by those who gathered by the Strikly Kosher hot dog stand that things turned for Bronx Bomber fans? The important piece was the outcome: the Yankees took the lead in the eighth inning thanks to a few lucky bounces that went their way, from a number of run-scoring batters who were hit by pitches, to a ball unexpectedly bouncing off of the Blue Jays’ pitcher’s glove. As this occurred, we all munched happily on our kosher for Passover chicken nuggets and wings.
The feeling of connection to my cousin and uncle, to the others at the seventh inning minyan and to the other 20,000 fans who were crazy enough to withstand the whipping winds to witness a Yankees win, made this a great experience and reminded me of what prayer and mitzvot are designed to do. Rabbis teach that there is a reason for mitzvot, especially those that have a set time (they are called ‘zman grama’ because you can only do the mitzvah at a particular moment, such as saying kiddush on Shabbat or lighting Chanukah candles during those evenings, or saying Maariv when it is the appropriate time of day). So each of those mitzvot that G‑d has commanded us to do is a way that God has created for us to attach us to G‑d more and more. In my Torah She Be’al Peh class, my teacher Phil Keisman taught us a text that speaks about Tefillin as something like this – it is something that creates a force field to connect us to G-d. So it’s not surprising that the word Mitzvah is related to the (Aramaic) word tzavta, which means “togetherness,” or “company.”
When someone senior to use asks us to do something (or commands us) and we go along with this direction, it creates a connection between the person following the commandment and the higher person (or being) who follows the instructions of the higher one making the request. This is described by rabbis to the experience of a servant who feels good when a king asks him to do something and feels important since the king entrusted him with this exact task. For me, that unique Maariv prayer experience, one I shared with other Yanks fans and particularly with special relatives, is an example of how a mitzvah bringing the Amaraic ‘tzavta’ or old fashioned American fan togetherness to life. Ez was especially chosen to help make the minyan, and by joining him in responding to another person’s request, it created an opportunity to take time to connect to God regardless of the location – and to connect to the others with whom we shared the tefillah experience, in much the same way that Bleacher Creatures at Yankee Stadium can join around a unique spiritual moment in their love of baseball. I left the minyan with the sense of connection to my cousin, uncle and other minyaneers, as well as with an appreciation for how Yankee Stadium could uplift me in an unexpected way.
Although the Maariv “service” only lasted 10-20 minutes, it was very meaningful for me. Among the few prayers we recited, Barchu was one that especially stood out. Barchu is known as the prayer that calls people together, and that was just what has happening right there by the kosher hot dog concession. We were coming together as one, despite only knowing one another for a minute or two. I truly felt here that not only had the members of the minyan fulfilled the commandment of praying to and respecting G-d, but we had also become closer together through this process. We had joined together to create a comfortable area for a minyan, and even more than that, had contributed to creating a minyan of 10 Jewish men who all took a moment from an exciting game to recite prayers that have been used for centuries in even more exotic places than Yankee Stadium.
As I rode the 6 Train back to my home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan after the game, I thought about how inspirational an experience the minyan at the ballpark was. Through the strength of combined prayer, the fifteen of us in the minyan returned to watch the Yankees snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat, and as an added bonus, we were able to build a strong spiritual bond with one another.
It is said in the Torah that we all come from Adam and Eve, and sadly, despite these standards, there are times nowadays when people don’t treat each other with pure kindness, whether because of age, sex, or race. Even though I would never meet these people who I had prayed with again, we would forever be connected because we will all always remember the one night that we stood together with hands white from the cold praying for peace, health, and even a Yankees win.