By Rabbi Meir Goldberg
Ah, the sights, sounds and smells of spring. Fathers roasting succulent hot dogs on a flaming grill; children frolicking carefree on the lawn, playing with their little friends; bees buzzing excitedly over their newest source of sweet, golden nectar; ducks quacking incessantly, splashing in a pond; white, puffy, cumulous clouds sailing through the clear blue skies like an armada of misty ships going out to sea.
Spring heralds the upcoming z’man cheruseinu, as busy preparations for Pesach are underway. We start looking forward to summer – to a time of relaxation and rejuvenation, of reflection and thought, of a thousand little moments that enable us to make those lasting connections to the ones we love.
But when I think of spring, one thought invariably pops into my head: Baseball. The sound of a bat connecting with a ball; the scent of a freshly broken-in baseball glove smothered in oil to protect the leather and make it supple; freshly-cut grass and a soil-splattered uniform, dirty from a hard slide into second base.
When I think of baseball in this town, I think of only one team in only one stadium: The Bronx Bombers, in the home office for baseball – i.e., the New York Yankees in a brand new House that Ruth Built, the new Yankee Stadium. The mind conjures up images of baseball’s ‘gedolim’ – Ruth and Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle, Jackson and Gossage, Mattingly, Jeter, Rivera.
What is it about the Yankees that makes them unique – so loved and so loathed? Respected, feared, held in awe and esteem, yet sneered at in contempt?
I believe the uniqueness of the Yankees begins with the fact that they are taught they are different. They have a glorious history replete with world-class players and historic moments – moments that stretch back through baseball history.
To be a Yankee isn’t always easy. The Yankees carry themselves in a professional way. You don’t show up the other team when you’re a Yankee. Any home run, great play in the field, or game-ending strikeout is celebrated with dignity. The Yankees’ clubhouse demeanor is different. They have to dress a certain way, speak a certain way, act a certain way and, in reality, just be a certain way.
The Yankees have a tough boss who expects – no, demands – excellence from his players. If they achieve success they are handsomely rewarded, but if they lose, there is nothing worse.
Because they have dominated baseball for so long, other teams, though they bear them a grudging respect, will go out of their way to hurt them. If the Yankees want to make a trade with another team they always have to give something extra. Nobody will let the hated Yankees get the best of them. When the Yankees lose, fans of other teams rejoice. They are quite sick of seeing them have so much success.
But just about anyone who has played baseball would almost certainly jump at the chance to just once put on those hallowed pinstripes and be – even for one day – a Yankee.
By now a reader might rightfully wonder about the point of this little essay. Is it really necessary for a rabbi to pontificate about some grown men playing a child’s game?
Yes – because the story of the Yankees is merely a mashal, a parable, for Klal Yisrael. For we too have a glorious history with the greatest of leaders who have impacted the world for good. We have had many magnificent moments and have achieved far more than our meager numbers would indicate. Non-Jews sense this and world history has been filled with contempt, hatred, loathing – and at the same time grudging respect – for the Jew.
The Jew has been forced to play the game of life with one hand tied behind his back, yet he has somehow always succeeded. Throughout history we have experienced the thrill and ecstasy of accomplishment and greatness, yet have also fallen to the lowest depths and even into the abyss of despair. Our sins were never worse than those of the nations that surrounded us, but we are different and so we must behave better. Our national mission demands this of us.
To be sure, it isn’t easy being a Jew. We have a demanding Boss who expects greatness from us. We are to be a “mamleches kohanim v’goy kadosh” – a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. We cannot always do what we want, act the way we want, speak the way we want, or dress the way we want. Yet we wouldn’t have it any other way, for we are God’s chosen people.
We teach our children that they are different; that they are special; that they are fortunate to have the glorious responsibility of carrying God’s torch down the boulevards of nations and through the pathways of world history. And though this torch may dim for a while, in the end we know it will always be held aloft, burning bright. Am Yisrael Chai.
We teach this message anew every Pesach as we remember the time and the moment we became Hashem’s people. We gladly and proudly renew our commitment and our timeless bond to Him. So this Pesach-cleaning season – our own spring training – let us remember to not only check the nooks and crannies of our homes for chametz, but to check and clean out the soiled nooks and crannies of our hearts from all the compiled chametz of bad middos.
Let us properly prepare for our Opening Day – the first night of Pesach 5769.
Rabbi Meir Goldberg is the director of Rutgers Jewish Xperience at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article first appeared in The Jewish Press.