October 3, 2016
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon
“Hi, there everybody, and a very pleasant good afternoon to you wherever you may be.” So began the final broadcast of the marvelous Los Angeles Dodgers’ announcer Vin Scully yesterday, as he completed an unbelievable 67-year career as the best sports broadcaster who has ever lived. 67 years, three score and seven in Biblical terms… The last day of our Jewish year 5776 was also the last day Vin Scully announced a Dodgers’ game. For some perspective, his first game as an announcer was in the Jewish year 5710; Harry Truman was president of the United States. Scully started as the 21-year old voice of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1950, palling around with Jackie Robinson, and he retired nearly seven decades later with accolades from Sandy Koufax, Clayton Kershaw, and movie star Kevin Costner. Vin Scully was not only an incredibly talented and enjoyable broadcaster, he remains a thoughtful, humble, and generous gentleman. And he was something more. He was an inspiration.
For six months of each and every year of my boyhood, from March through October, 162 games plus spring training and the playoffs and World Series, Vin Scully was the voice of spring, summer, and early fall. No one has ever told a story better than Vin Scully, rolling out the details gradually, interspersed among the actual baseball events unfolding before him. No one has ever set a scene better than Vin Scully, laying out the drama inherent in what might seem like child’s play of ball, bat, and glove. He made it all magical, but realistically gritty, too, without forgetting his essential task to describe. He was just so good. He created magic.
As children, we listened to Vin Scully in our homes and on the way, and certainly when we would lie down at night…
Each evening I would sneak a transistor radio into my pillowcase and listen to the end of the Dodgers’ game, narrated vividly in Scully’s easy baritone. He would slowly bring on the drama, until you’d find yourself clinging to every syllable: “Two outs, bottom of the ninth, bases loaded with Reds, the Dodgers lead by 2. Johnny Bench at the plate… he has already homered tonight, and he’s fouled off the last three pitches; what does a pitcher have left to throw, here? Mikkelson looks in to get the sign; toes the rubber, wipes his brow, and who wouldn’t?— and now he’s set. Checks the runners, and the pitch is a PALMBALL, swung on and missed, strike three, the Dodgers win!”
If I could deliver just one sermon that captivated everyone like Vin Scully did with a call like that, I could die happy. And if that sermon, or the Too Jewish Radio Show, reached just 10% of the people that Vin Scully did during a meaningless weekday ballgame… well, that would really be something, as Vin would say. Of course, I remember many Rosh HaShanah services in which the telltale earpiece from a transistor radio testified to the fact that a congregant was secretly listening to Vin Scully broadcast the World Series during High Holy Day services.
As a kid, I realized early on that my dreams of playing major league baseball would go unfulfilled. Growing up in my neighborhood, we would all have liked to have played for the Dodgers, of course. But because of Vin Scully we also wanted to announce for the Dodgers. Every front yard game of baseball, over-the-line, or whiffle ball was accompanied by steady commentary from at least one of the kids pretending to be Vin Scully. It wasn’t enough to strike out a batter or hit a home run; you had to narrate it, colorfully, with detailed descriptions of pulling at your non-existent cap and marvelous anecdotes about your surprising backstory. But you know what? Not only weren’t we going to play for the Dodgers. It turned out that we weren’t even close to successfully imitating the guy doing the announcing. Because he was special.
No one has ever captured a moment of actual athletic greatness better than Vin Scully. I stood in a windy gas station filling my car in October 1988 and heard him narrate the drama of overmatched Dodgers’ star Kirk Gibson struggle up to the plate with two bad legs, and fight off two-strike pitches from the best relief pitcher in history, Dennis Eckersley. And as the tension built nearly beyond endurance, he announced, “High fly ball into right field… she is gone!” and after the crowd roared and roared and roared—and several grown men in a gas station 120 miles away who did not know each other jumped up and down—it was Scully who captured it in one amazing sentence, “In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened!” Amazing.
So what can an aging redheaded baseball radio announcer from the Bronx—and a devout Catholic—possibly teach us Jews on Rosh HaShanah here in Tucson, Arizona?
First of all, this: Vin Scully wasn’t a star player, manager, or owner. In fact, he wasn’t in any of the glamor roles we associate with sports. He was just the guy talking about the people who really mattered, and he sold gasoline and hot dogs along the way. Yet somehow, with his talent, dedication, humor, humility, and innate decency, he became as important as anyone who played or managed. In fact, more important. He elevated what he did, this commercial act of broadcasting, into a hugely popular, inimitable art form, a unifying voice in the community, a soundtrack for people’s lives, and he did it through excellence, consistency, and joy.
And yet, he has said, again and again, that he feels incredibly lucky to do something he loves, to keep on fooling people into believing that he is good at what he does. He says and writes about how fortunate and blessed he is, when he is the one who blessed so many of us.
There is a wonderful lesson in this. You see, everyone can’t be the Most Valuable Player. Everyone can’t hit the winning home run. Everyone can’t be the owner of the team, or the star of the movie, or the captain of the ship or the CEO or the major general. Everyone can’t play for the Dodgers—or even be their radio announcer. But everyone, each one of us, can elevate what we do through our dedication, decency, and excellence. Each one of us can do work that has meaning, and do it well. Each of us can find our purpose. Every one of us can live a life that matters.
That means that each of us can take pride in what we do, each can value his or her work enough to be prepared, to care, to seek always to improve. And each of us can do what we do in our very own way. For we each have our own unique authenticity. We each have skills and talents no one else has. We each can make a positive difference in this world. If we do what we are good at doing well, with integrity and care and joy, we, too, will bring blessing to others, and we will be remembered.
Today we begin the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance. Teshuvah means repentance, but coming from the root word shuv; most of all, it means return. Teshuvah means return to the best that is within us. It means finding a way, over these ten days, to return to the best you that you can be.
That is the true lesson of Rosh HaShanah. We do not have to be the greatest scholar, or the most heroic leader, or the best-looking, or the thinnest person in any room. We do not have to be the greatest American hero. We do not have to be a superstar, or a movie star, or a major league ballplayer. We do not even have to be Vin Scully.
We simply have to be the best of ourselves. It is that person whom we are seeking today, on Rosh HaShanah, and whom we wish to reinvigorate over these Ten Days of Repentance. You see, if you can find the best version of yourself at this time of Teshuvah, if you can recommit to doing your work with energy and dedication, if you can find the joy in your life, you will also find a way to bring blessing to this shiny new year.
There is a great story about this. Once, the great Hassidic Rebbe Zusia, came to his followers, his eyes red with tears, his face pale with fear.
"Zusia, what's the matter? You look frightened!" his concerned students asked.
"I just had a vision,” Zusia answered. “I learned the question that God will one day ask me about my life."
His followers were puzzled. "Zusia, you are pious. You are scholarly and humble. You have helped each of us. What question about your life could be so terrifying that you would be frightened to answer it?" they said.
Zusia turned his gaze to heaven. "I have learned that God will not ask me, 'Why weren't you Moses, leading your people out of slavery?' God will not ask me why I wasn’t the best Moses I could be."
His followers persisted. "So, what will God ask you?"
"And I have learned," Zusia sighed, "that God will not ask me, 'Why weren't you Joshua, leading your people into the Promised Land?' God will not ask me why I wasn’t the best Joshua I could be."
Again, they asked, “So, nu, what will God ask you?”
“And I have also learned,” Zusia moaned, “that God will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you the Prophet Elijah, fighting against the injustice of the king and queen?’ God will not ask me why I wasn’t the best Elijah I could be.”
Finally, one of his followers approached Zusia and placed his hands on Zusia's shoulders. Looking him in the eyes, he demanded, "Reb Zusia, what will God ask you?"
And Zusia answered, "I have learned that God will say to me, 'Zusia, there was only one thing that no power of heaven or earth could have prevented you from becoming.' God will say, 'Zusia, why weren't you the best Zusia you could be?' And that is why I am distraught. I don’t think I have been the best Zusia I could have been.”
The best Zusia. Not the best Moses. Not the best Joshua. Not the best Elijah. Not even the best Vin Scully.
What we are asked to do over these Days of Awe, over this Rosh HaShanah and through to Yom Kippur, is rediscover the best version of ourselves. To find the person within who is open enough to learn, generous enough to give, caring enough to comfort, conscientious enough to do our work well and with pride. In a way, this is the greatest teshuvah that any of us can do: to find the Jew within us who will be true to the best that is within us. To find the human being we can be, the one who can do the mitzvot that will make our lives better, and so improve the whole world.
Just as we, individually, seek to be the best version of ourselves that we can be, to return to the ideal form of ourselves, so, too, our temple seeks the same thing. As Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Living is not just a private affair of the individual. Living is what we do with God’s time, what we do with God’s world.” It is also what we do in community.
My friends, this is my 18th High Holy Days here in Tucson, which makes this the “Chai” Year of my service as your senior rabbi. Eighteen years on one pulpit, dedicated to one organization, seems like a very long time, a whole career for some. Of course, compared to Vin Scully’s 67 years with the Dodgers, I am only in about the 2nd inning… Still, it is something. 18 in Hebrew, of course, means life, and life happens, and has happened.
As they say in Yiddish, di yorn flegn. When I began here my beard was red, not mostly white. My children were in pre-school, infants, or yet to be born; they are now, respectively, halfway through college, a senior in high school, and studying for confirmation. When he installed me on this pulpit in 1999, my father was a spry young 72-year old—just four times chai. He has now reached five times chai, 90, on the way to 120, God-willing.
Here at Temple Emanu-El, the infants I named my first year are now high school seniors. Some b’nai mitzvah students from back then have children of their own, some of them enrolled in our own Strauss Early Childhood Center, which was founded in the 2000 year. It has been eighteen years of bar and bat mitvzahs, babynamings and brisses, consecrations and confirmations, weddings and birthdays, conversions and anniversaries, graduations and celebrations, funerals and unveilings—eighteen years of life. Real life. We have written two Torahs, traveled to Israel together multiple times, prayer and studied and sang and laughed and cried together.
Throughout these 18 years, it is now and has always been an incredible privilege to be able to be part of your lives at so many powerful times, to help lead this kehilah kedoshah, this sacred congregation.
That means that over these 18 years there have been ups and downs, some peaks higher than anyone could predict, some valleys deeper than anyone would expect. Dreams have been fulfilled, goals achieved; others have failed. Through it all, there is the overriding experience of knowing that this is what real life is like.
I must mention, that over that time, there has never been enough money to do what we need to do. This has become a commonplace, of course; we are a synagogue, after all, and we are expected to carry on and do the essential work of the Jewish people whether or not we have the resources to do so. Your help with our Chai Campaign over these days of yomtov is essential to Temple Emanu-El’s ability to function and be there for you, of course; and since this is now my Chai year, perhaps you can help more than you have until now… But regardless of finances, somehow or other life here goes on, and we continue to experience the extraordinary flow of festivals and events, and the deeper flow of that great river of divine energy, of life, that courses through this building and our congregation.
I have learned many things over these 18 years. But mostly what I have learned best is that when we do things really well, when we here at Temple dedicate ourselves to advancing Reform Judaism and Jewish values in our community, and when we do so with dedication and commitment, God favors our work, and everything else falls into place. When this vital place teems with Jewish life, and our volunteers and staff work with dedication and energy, God’s work is truly well served.
I pray that here at Temple Emanu-El we will, in this 18th year, offer the finest Jewish experiences, and the clearest path to meaning and holiness, that we can. That we will continue to make it possible to celebrate life, Jewish life, fully and completely, with depth and joy and care and purpose, in true community.
Just as our own Temple seeks to be the best that it can be, tries to offer the finest worship, education, and caring that it can, so are we obligated to seek these in our own lives. And here we have the opportunity not only to find meaning, but also to assist this temple community to enrich the very life that it nurtures and cultivates.
Over these great Yamim Nora’im, over these high and holy days, may we each find our own best self, and successfully seek to live as that person. And may we join together and help our congregation achieve what it also seeks: to be the best place for Jewish learning, prayer, social action, purpose, and, in this chai year, living.
For all of us.
May this be God’s will, and, most importantly, our own.