The Torah Is A Tree Of Life To Those Who Are Faithful To It – Even In Sports
To American Jews, in 1934, it was Hank Benjamin Greenberg, also known as Hammerin Hank and the Hebrew Hammer’ of the Detroit Tigers who refused to play on Yom Kippur, that caused his name to be etched in the Jewish record books for the sacrifice he made that day. In 1954, one year before the debut of Sandy Koufax, Hank Greenberg was the General Manager of the Cleveland Indians. Greenberg’s team had more black players than any other because Greenberg judged a player by his ability to do his job and not by the color of his skin or religious beliefs. On October 16, 1940, Greenberg became the first American League player to register for the nation’s first peacetime draft..and served 47 months, the longest of any Major League player. There were Incidents of anti-Semitism targeting Greenberg, but he handled them well. In fact, Jackie Robinson credited Greenberg with helping him through the difficulties of his rookie year.
Sandy Koufax on September 9, 1965 pitched a perfect game against the Chicago Cubs retiring all 27 batters he faced without allowing any base runners. Less than one month later, the Los Angeles Dodgers arrived in Minnesota to face the Twins for the first game of the World Series and Sandy refused to pitch because it was Yom Kippur, October 6
One would think that given Sandy’s abilities, and his love of the game, he would have naturally wanted to pitch that first game. But because he made such a great sacrifice to honor G-d’s name, Hashem himself made sure Sandy’s name would remain in the record books for many years to come.
Before continuing with my analysis, I must fill you in on some background leading up to this day. Because of my education, driving on Shabbat and the High Holidays was acceptable. The synagogue which you saw pictured in the movie A Serious Man is the same one I went to before, during and a few years after my Bar Mitzvah. Bnai Abraham began from a house, and then the building took shape when sufficient funds were collected. The following stories explain how difficult it was for me and I’m sure the Coen Brothers to understand what being Jewish really meant.
When I was nine, I felt ready to fast on Yom Kippur, and that was before I saw in the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, that one should not consider fasting before that age. The Shul gave all of us who were under Bar Mitzvah a chocolate bar as a reward for fasting. The problem was that those chocolate bars were not kosher, so my reward for doing a mitzvah was eating something treif. Another very confusing incident on my way to understanding what being a Jew really meant.
As the time of my Bar Mitzvah grew near, the Rabbi’s secretary invited my parents and I to a private meeting to set a date and the Rabbi took out the Shul diary and explained that; the Shul goes on vacation during the summer so the earliest Parsha I will be able to read was Shoftim. My family trusted the Rabbi so we never questioned why my Parsha would be delayed by at least two weeks from when I was reaching Bar Mitzvah age. But as I look back at it, Hashem had a very good reason for rewarding me Shoftim.
Then I was required to learn various portions from the Torah and the Rabbi would test me in addition I had to learn with a Bar Mitzvah teacher how to sing and read the Maftir and Haftorah. But nothing was said about tefillin, tallis, and other mitzvahs that I was required to know once I became obligated to follow all the Torah mitzvahs. This was never covered in Talmud Torah so why would I even think it was important. Therefore, all I had to do was memorize questions the Rabbi would ask me. After many months the Rabbi was happy with my progress and then I concentrated on my Torah Reading.
I was also in Junior Congregation which had its own service downstairs before we were allowed to go upstairs to participate in the Bar Mitzvah. Joe King, who I previously referred to, was the leader. When the services were about to end, there was a folding partition like an accordion which divided the main sanctuary from the back, where the Kiddush was served. We all would stand behind a line in the tiles and wait anxiously for the Rabbi and Bar Mitzvah boy to end the services on the back stage, similar to waiting for the starter’s gun to sound. The Rabbi would always start with the first words being “The Torah is a Tree of Life To Those Who Are Faithful To It” which I really thought was a very nice way of explaining what the Torah really meant, I just couldn’t see how that applied to what I was being taught. Then we would stand on that line and as soon as the Rabbi finished we raced for two tables designated for us, one with drinks and one with cake. No brachas, just see who could get there first to have the first pieces of cake and drinks.
The day of my Bar Mitzvah came and the Shul had hired a professional who knew how to operate the new tape recording machine that featured large spools of recording tape. The professional had done many of these before so he should have known what he was doing. When my Bar Mitzvah was over, our family came home and relaxed that Shabbat. It took a bit of time but finally the tape came back of my Bar Mitzvah and we took it home to relive my big day.
When my father turned on our tape recorder to listen, we were all shocked to find the whole tape was totally blank. The Rabbi agreed to re-do my Bar Mitzvah again during the middle of the week with just himself announcing and me saying over my Maftir and Haftorah. Everything came out perfect, and in hindsight, I became the only Bar Mitzvah boy in Shul to have a tape recorded copy of my Bar Mitzvah not made on Shabbat.
So now let’s take a closer look at what happened that Yom Kippur in 1965, when Sandy Koufax decided instead of pitching on the mound to sing in Shul, which I know he did because we saw reports on the evening news of Sandy leaving Shul. Firstly, my Shul was so popular that as the suburb was growing by leaps and bounds, many families joined, and the main sanctuary could not hold all members at one time. It was decided there would be two services, one in the morning and another in the afternoon. And just my luck, we ended up going in the afternoon, just as Game One of the World Series was starting.
With no way of knowing how my heroes were doing and Sandy not pitching, the services were taking forever. Just then my aunt wanted to leave and asked if anyone wanted a ride home. I really wanted to stay for the whole service, like I did every year, but my Yetzer Hora got the better of me, and I accepted her offer. I was 16 at the time, Harmon Killebrew was my hero, finally they were going to the World Series, And without Sandy pitching, the underdog Twins had a chance to win at least this game. So I raced to turn on the TV and found that the Twins had scored 8 runs and were well on their way to winning their first World Series game as Twins, since they had relocated from Washington DC.
Naturally I thought that if Sandy refused to pitch on Yom Kippur, he should surely be rewarded by winning Game 2, and again, I was really puzzled because Sandy lost that second game. Then the next three games were played in Dodger Stadium where the Dodgers took all three, with the final two games of the best of seven series returning to Minnesota. The Twins won the first to tie the Series at 3 games each. So now it was Sandy who was called upon to pitch the final game and he was very impressive which resulted in the first victory by a visiting team in the Series.
Hearing that Sandy refused to pitch on Yom Kippur, Rabbi Moshe Feller was successful in presenting Sandy with a pair of tefillin after finding his way past heavy hotel security. While visiting with Sandy, and congratulating him on his impressive decision, I heard that Sandy also added he would not have pitched on Rosh Hashana either.
Here is where I feel Sandy’s decision set in motion a cycle which Hashem created to give Sandy his lifetime award for making such a brave decision while he was at the top of his game. To Sandy, it seemed, Shabbat was like every other ordinary day, but for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, to Sandy they were special days and he refused to pitch on any of them. Sandy, with his actions sent out a message to the whole world that he loves and respects G-d and Hashem honored him with a special honor.
I hinted about this in a previous Blog saying that Sandy refused to pitch on the same English date October 6, which was Yom Kippur in 1943. The Rabbis attempted to march on Washington, but were turned back because the President refused to see them.
On the first Shabbat after the recent Israeli Earthquake I was in Shul davening with my tallis over my head and my davening was interrupted by two important news flashes which came to me from Hashem of course, who else!!! One of which is as follows-
I must not only go back in 22 year intervals from the time Sandy refused to pitch on Yom Kippur, but I must also go forward as well from that year.
Now if we look another 22 years after Sandy’s impressive performance both on and off the field, we arrive at the year of 1987, which marked the first Intifada uprising in Gaza between the Palestinians and Israel. During that year, for the first time since 1965, the Minnesota Twins again became American League Champions and this time faced the St. Louis Cardinals. Minnesota was victorious also in seven games, with each home team winning. It again happened four years later when the Atlanta Braves and Minnesota Twins played in the 1991 World Series. So that meant that what had never been accomplished before in Major League Baseball happened twice within four years and both times involved the Minnesota Twins.
In other words, in 1987 the Twins won all four home games in the World Series while the same thing took place again four years later in 1991. The only game therefore that Minnesota played at home during a World Series and lost was when Sandy Koufax pitched in the seventh game of the 1965 World Series. To this day that record has not been broken since the Twins have not been to a World Series since 1991.
And please take note that the St. Louis Cardinals who played the Twins in the 1987 Series gives a slight hint to A Serious Man being released in 2009, set in St. Louis Park, which have Orioles as the team mascot.
Now we continue our journey another 22 years and arrive at the year 2009. The Twins were having an average year so there is nothing to talk about. Other events which took place in 2009 include the following from Wikipedia-
US Airways Flight 1549 on January 15, 2009, struck a flock of geese just northeast of the George Washington Bridge . Pilots Chesley Sullenberger and Jeffrey Skiles glided the plane to a ditching in the Hudson River. All 155 people aboard were rescued by nearby boats. The accident came to be known as the “Miracle on the Hudson“.
January 18 – Hamas announces they will accept IDF offer of a ceasefire. Israel withdraws from the Gaza Strip three days later, and then the fighting once again erupts. Nothing new here.
March 12 – Bernard Madoff pleads guilty to his massive Ponzi scheme. Among the many investors reported to have been affected by this massive fraud was Sandy Koufax .
I would like to discuss all of the above three events sometime in the future, but rather concentrate on one significant event that took place on January 24, 2010, which directly resulted from 2009. That event was the NFC Championship Game between the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints held in New Orleans.
The winner of this game would be going to the Super Bowl, while the loser would be going home. The game was a battle of two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, and future Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson. The game was exciting and close and with 19 seconds left in the fourth quarter and the score tied, Vikings quarterback Brett Favre rolled to his right and was looking to move the ball downfield to gain enough yardage to be within field goal range, and win the game. As the play developed, if he would have run, he most probably would have succeeded as he had an open field ahead of him. But instead threw the ball across his body, which resulted in an interception to send the game into overtime.
The coin toss went to the New Orleans Saints, who marched down the field and kicked a field goal on their first possession. The fans went wild because the New Orleans Saints had won and now were going to the Super Bowl. But just hold on a bit, why didn’t the Vikings have an opportunity to get the ball back and score. That was the biggest mystery and totally unfair.
The reason was that at that time, NFL overtime rules stated that the first team to score in overtime wins. So guess what happened before the start of the following season, the NFL rules committee decided to change the rule because of this game and now if any team scores on the first possession then the opponent has the opportunity to get the ball back to try to score.
In other words, in baseball terms, it was like the Vikings being the home team, and the Saints batted first in the top of the tenth and scored a run and were declared he winners even though the Vikings never got their chance to bat in the bottom of the 10th inning. The rule did not make sense and so the NFL had to change it. And it most probably cost the Vikings of 2009 a chance to return to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1977.
A perfect example of man-made laws which are subject to change while the Torah never changes.
So now I was looking for a Minnesota Team to produce a winning performance in the year 2009. The Minnesota Timberwolves had a losing record, while the Minnesota Wild missed the playoffs. But I checked the year’s history again and found the film “A Serious Man” was released in 2009. The Minnesota Team to have produced it were the Coen Brothers, and of all places it was about the Coens’ and my own hometown. I was looking forward to the day of its release because I wanted to take my children to the movies so see what it was like when I grew up and as it turned out the same synagogue that I had attended while having my Bar Mitzvah. But my children and I never made it to the theatre to see it because of the rating letter “R”. – Restricted.
Instead, I looked at various reviews, one of which I mentioned was from Rabbi Blech on the Aish Torah site written in October, 2009. Rabbi Blech first points out – Viewers are reassured that, “No Jews were harmed in the making of this motion picture.”. And that’s a very good point to raise, because a general blanket statement by the Coen Brothers regarding how every Jew would feel about their movie is quite amazing. But what about people like me who never saw it, because of the “R”. We had no fences around our houses so anything happening anywhere outside would certainly have been noticed by the neighbors. To put 2009 morals in a 1967 film also didn’t make sense.
Since I never did see the whole movie, it is unfair to comment in detail. But I feel I am justified in making a few observations. Firstly, I can understand how confused the Coens must have been about being Jewish and I tried to explain where that confusion came from in the beginning of this Blog, having had probably the same experiences they had. So I can understand it but I don’t agree with it, since a Jew is supposed to love a fellow Jew. And if you love a person, you will not try to hurt him or her, but make sure you treat that fellow Jew with the greatest respect. This is what is expected of you as a human being and if that is what a fellow Jew as well as all human beings are expecting from you then how much more so is G-d expecting that from you.
So the main character meets up with three Rabbi’s who were supposed to help Larry escape from his difficulties, and instead of helping, it appears they confuse him even more. Now this is where the movie could have been changed to create something constructive for all Jews.
Regarding the first Rabbi, as I remember he had a tallis hanging on his door, so the Rabbi could easily have taken that tallis and explained the meaning of the fringes and why we daven with a tallis every day.
The second Rabbi apparently told a story about letters appearing on teeth, and that could have easily been turned around to have the Rabbi showing Larry a pair of tefillin, how to put them on and what they mean. The letters rather have to be worn on the head as it says in the Torah, not in the mouth.
And finally we have the very learned Rabbi who was busy “thinking”. There is nothing wrong with thinking, but to the main character, he could not understand why the Rabbi could not take a few moments to consult with him. If that Rabbi was wearing a tallis and tefillin when Larry saw him, then perhaps Larry would have considered even putting them on in future, if the Rabbi was busy davening.
Rabbi Blech also points out how the Coens’ forget to mention the miraculous victory of Israel defending itself and utterly destroying the military forces of those Arab neighbors who attacked. To this day, Israel’s enemy has not recovered and Israel continues to grow stronger. The most important point of Rabbi Blech’s article in my opinion is that perhaps not every Jew was offended by this movie, but it certainly seems G-d was and now G-d is getting his revenge based on what is happening in the world today. Especially in Congress – it’s beginning to look more like a horror movie.
Twins teams went 66-96 in 2013; 70-92 in 2014; 83-79 in 2015; 59-103 in 2016; 85-77 in 2017; and 78-84 in 2018. That’s five seasons of some bad to mediocre baseball. But as I am writing this, the Twins are 37-17 and own the best record in all of Major League Baseball. What can explain the sudden rise in this team, maybe Hashem wants to send a unique message to baseball fans and all the rest of us.
And here I want to bring in the Parsha Shoftim. Even though I was not supposed to read that Parsha on my Bar mitzvah, this is what I read. To this day, I always focus on the Haftorah which I love to listen to every year in Shul especially when a Bar Mitzvah boy recites it because it brings back many memories. But more importantly, four times in the Haftorah words repeat themselves and Hashem is trying to wake us up and send a message that no matter how difficult things look, just like my Rabbi said after every Bar Mitzvah, as I said before and will repeat again – The Torah Is A Tree Of Life To Those Who Are Faithful To It.
During the difficult times we are living in today, there is always faith and hope that peace and tranquility will come to the world and everything is in G-d’s control.
It looks like miracles can happen even in Major League Baseball with the 2019 Minnesota Twins being the prime example. So if the Twins go on to win the World Series this year, after their record of the past 5 years, I would consider that a miracle. Not only that, if the Twins are World Series champions and this year’s Minnesota Vikings go on to win the Super Bowl, something they have never done before, then maybe Moshiach is on his way sooner than we think…