Erev Rosh Hashanah 5774: Life is a Knuckleball

on Wednesday, 04 September 2013. Posted in Sermon

I'm sure that by now you have realized that there is a change in the line-up this year. Rabbi Holtz is bringing his rabbinic skills to a congregation in London, England and will be translating his coaching ability from softball to cricket whenever the season starts there.

I am Rabbi Batsheva Appel and have been tapped to join the Temple Emanu-El team and am excited to be part of this community. I am more bookish than athletic, and was very upfront with the lay leadership of this congregation that I am really not very accomplished in any sport that involves hitting something with something else. I have been doing some research however on how we might use the knuckleball in our softball games.

I learned about the knuckleball when I heard about the memoir of R.A. Dickey, currently a knuckleball pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays. When I began listening to Terry Gross' interview of Dickey on Fresh Air, I thought that the story would be straightforward: pitcher learns new skill through lots of practice and extends his career in Major League Baseball. Dickey's story is actually much more complicated.

He is very candid in his memoir, Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball, sharing difficult details about his childhood. He does well at baseball and plays at University of Tennessee. Dickey is drafted by the Texas Rangers with a substantial signing bonus that is then lost when the Rangers take back their offer. It turns out he has no ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow, which will affect his pitching. They end up making him a much less significant offer, because of his elbow. He continues to work to achieve his dream of being a Major League Baseball pitcher, but at times it seems farther and farther away. He plays in the minor leagues for a long time and is eventually called up to the majors.

As Dickey is recuperating from a different injury, he is asked to specialize in the knuckleball, an ugly pitch as he calls it. A knuckleball pitcher throws the ball so that it has no spin which makes it unpredictable and incredibly difficult to hit. Dickey says that no one grows up wanting to pitch the knuckleball, and that most knuckleball pitchers specialize after an injury or after their pitching starts to decline.

He devotes all of his time to learning how to pitch knuckleballs, practicing his grip constantly, throwing baseballs for hours at a time. He has some success and some disasters. Dickey continues to work hard on all aspects of knuckleball pitching, even though he isn't sure that he will be able to master the pitch and will be finished with baseball.

The part of the story that I found most interesting is an incident that he himself acknowledges as reckless and idiotic. During the middle of the time that he is struggling to master the knuckleball, he decides that he is going to swim across the Missouri River. This is not some drunken exploit, as Dickey does not drink, this decision is a conscious choice to try and swim across the river.

Dickey starts out and realizes quickly that he is in big trouble. When he gets almost half way across the river, he decides that he needs to go back. He eventually makes it to shore and a teammate is there to help him out of the water and get him back to their hotel.

R.A. Dickey describes this as a near death experience and says that in the aftermath, he was a changed man. He had a very different perspective about his life and how he wanted to live his life. He became a better pitcher and in 2012, when he was playing for the New York Mets, he won the Cy Young Award, the first knuckleball pitcher to do so.

When I heard R.A. Dickey share his story and when I read it in his memoir, I was struck by this: we do not have to copy his reckless act, but we can benefit from what he learned. Thinking about our own death can help us make sense of our lives. And thinking about our own death is what we do at this time of year.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur frame the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, but another translation could use the word "fear". Why would we be afraid? It is the Jewish New Year, a time of shofar blasts and sweetness.

Beyond being the New Year, Rosh Hashanah is also called Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment. Tomorrow morning in the prayer, Unetane Tokef, we will read the description of everyone being judged by God, who will be Judge and Arbiter, Counsel and Witness. This day each of us is a defendant in this courtroom.

What will be the evidence brought against us? Sefer hazikhronot, the book of remembrances, the book of our days. What makes it the most compelling evidence? V'chotem yad kol adam bo, each entry in the book bears our signatures.

What are the possible outcomes for Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment? Life or death.

This prayer is always a struggle for me. In my own personal theology, I least like thinking about God as the Judge of the World. I least like thinking about reward and punishment. Yet there is profound meaning in this prayer at this time of year. As we mark another year, we think about the fragility of our lives, we remember that God is eternal and that the bounds of our lives are finite. We remember that there are many things over which we have no control, yet there are things that we can control.

And we can think about the finite bounds of our lives during these Days of Awe to emerge changed by the experience, without attempting something as foolish as trying to swim across the Missouri River.

Thinking about our mortality does not take the place of doing all of the work that we need to do in our lives, but knowing that our time is limited helps to add clarity to our thinking; as the Psalmist says: "Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom." [Psalms 90:12] We need the reminder that we do not have eternity to accomplish everything; that we need to act now, before we lose the opportunity to do the things that are important.

Beyond creating a "bucket list" of everything that we each wish to accomplish, there are three things in particular that might benefit from the focus as we go through the next ten days.

There are times when families and friends are able come together to say good-bye to someone as they are dying, but not everyone is given that gift. Part of this season is doing work to repair our relationships. We reflect on the past year and go through the steps of t'shuvah or the steps of forgiveness. Our goal is to restore our relationships with family, with friends, with community, as well as with God.

A harder task than t'shuvah is the writing of an ethical will. An ethical will records the important values and lessons that are to be left to the survivors. As we review the past year, as we review our lives, what do we want our families and friends to know? What do we want to leave them beyond our possessions? Writing an ethical is a tough exercise, but invaluable for helping us to distill what we think is important in our lives.

The last thing that I want to suggest as we number our days seems easy but is not. I am going to suggest that we live our lives now, that we don't put it off.

Asked "What surprises you most about humanity?" the Dalai Lama responded, "Man surprised me most about humanity. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived."1

If we are really numbering our days, than using the time of Rosh Hashanah to resolve to make changes seems appropriate, starting now instead of four months from now. I used to make a distinction between the generally physical resolutions that most people make on January 1st and the generally spiritual resolutions that many people make during Rosh Hashanah, but I no longer do that because I think that both are important to who we are and who we will be, and that we need to start now.

One more thought about the knuckleball.

The knuckleball is a pitch that ensures that the ball has no spin and is therefore unpredictable and incredibly difficult to hit. It is also a pitch over which the pitcher has very little control. R.A. Dickey says that we have to "... embrace it for what it is—a pitch that is reliant on an amalgam of forces both seen and unseen..." That to me is a great metaphor for our lives. We stand poised at the beginning of a New Year, we can work hard and we can set everything into motion, but we don't know what will happen. Our lives are reliant on an amalgam of forces both seen and unseen, within our control and outside of our control. We don't know if we will be up or down, even where we will end up. But we keep throwing that next pitch into a brand new year.

L'shanah tovah tikateivu v'tichateimu, May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year in the Book of Life.


According to Wikiquotes, this is a misattribution. http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Tenzin_Gyatso,_14th_Dalai_Lama#.22What_surprises_you_most_about_humanity.3F.22

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