June is upon us and the end of the school years in only days away (I imagine students counting down and crossing days off their calendars as you read this!) With the end of the school year comes summer vacation and camp for so many of our children! As a child, I spent my summers at day camp and then Jewish sleepaway camp. As a teen, my summers were spent on youth group programs and Israel trips. I get particularly giddy during the summer though because baseball season is in full swing. I know baseball season technically begins in April and many games have already been played. However, it’s the dog days of summer in which the season really takes off. After school is out, ballparks fill up with young boys and girls hoping to catch a homerun ball, snacking on peanuts and crackerjacks. I realize that Jacksonville is a football town and as much as we may root for our Jacksonville Suns Minor League team, many of us are first and foremost fans of the Jaguars, Gators, Bulldogs, or Seminoles. Yet, there is still something unique and sacred about the game of baseball that all of us can relate to as Jews.
My favorite apocryphal story involves Solomon Schechter, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the flagship institution of the Conservative Movement, walking the streets of Manhattan with a young rabbinical student Louis Finkelstein (who would later go on to serve as chancellor of JTS) in the 1910s. Schechter stopped at a newsstand to check the box scores from the previous day’s games and asked Finkelstein if he played baseball. The young student shook his head no. Solomon Schechter explained that if you do not play baseball and know the game of baseball, then you will never be a successful rabbi in this country.
The accuracy of the story is unimportant. The takeaway of this conversation is what resonates: there is a profound connection between our identities as American Jews and our passion as fans of America’s pastime. For me, the analogy of baseball is specifically meaningful as it relates to prayer. I often discuss tefillah with members of the Center and brainstorm how we can make prayer more meaningful for each individual. We spend the school year working hard to ensure our MJGDS and BASRS students are literate in tefillah skills while still have inspiring prayer experiences. I admit it: I do not always have a meaningful prayer experience. Yes, I am a rabbi and I do not always get something out of davening. While I cannot speak for others, I can assume that the same is true for Rabbi Lubliner, Hazzan Holzer, and just about every single member of the Jacksonville Jewish Center. This has nothing to do with fixed liturgy, the language of prayer, the choreography of tefillot or anything like that. This has everything to do with the fact that praying to God, developing a personal revelatory experience, and understanding the Divine is the hardest thing to do… even harder than hitting a ninety-five miles-per-hour fastball. Rabbi Elliot Dorff of the American Jewish University notes that “It would not be realistic or fair to expect a home run each time one is at bat in prayer any more than it would be in baseball. Those who pray very little often make that mistake. A homerun in prayer, like in baseball, requires much practice, many trials and errors, and, ultimately, consummate skill. Even that is not enough. One needs some luck, too. The conditions have to be just right, and one’s body, mind, and emotions have to be perfectly attuned to one another and to the task at hand. This does not happen very often.”
Imagine another profession in which one succeeds only thirty percent of the time. If that was the case, that individual would soon be unemployed and yet, a .300 hitter (a hitter who gets a hit – not even a homerun, but just a hit – three out of every ten chances) is an all-star and among the best in the sport! So instead of swinging for the fences every single time we pray, let us focus on consistency and strive to make spiritual practice a regular part of our lives. We may not always make contact, but there is something special and sacred about stepping up to the plate, making regular prayer practice a part of our lives. The more at-bats a batter has, the more comfortable he gets, eventually turning strike-outs into homeruns. So too, the more one attends services, makes prayer a regular part of one’s life, and becomes more familiar with the fixed liturgy, the easier it is for one to add spontaneous prayer to one’s daily routine. So take time this summer to root, root, root for the home team, and make personal and communal time to talk to God as well. Before you know it, it will be a lot easier than trying to hit that fastball!
– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky
(Originally published in the June 2012 edition of the Jacksonville Jewish Center’s CenterPieces Magazine)