Breaking Barriers

Jackie RobinsonAnyone who is a baseball fan loves this time of year. With April comes a new season and with a new season comes new possibilities and new hope for a brighter, better future. After all, every time is in playoff contention this early in the season. Baseball fans  in particular also spend a great deal of time focusing on the significance of dates, statistics, and records. April 15th is a significant date in baseball history for fans of America’s Pastime, as well as for all in our country. On April 15th 1947, 66 years ago, Jackie Robinson, broke baseball’s color barrier, becoming the first African American to play in the Major Leagues. Breaking baseball’s color barrier contributed significantly to the launch of the Civil Rights Movement in this country. As Major League Baseball Analyst Casey Stern noted, “[April 15th] is one of the most important dates in American history. It just happened to have baseball as its backdrop.”

 

Sixteen years ago, Major League Baseball decided to retire Jackie Robinson’s #42 jersey number, the only number that every team has retired, ensuring that in his honor, and in honor of such a huge step towards equality, no one shall wear it again. Several years ago, on April 15th, Jackie Robinson Day, MLB decided that every player should honor Robinson for one day a year, by all wearing the same number, #42. Hollywood is also taking the step in honoring Jackie Robinson, coming out the with film “42: the Jackie Robinson Story”, starring Chadwick Boseman and Harrison Ford, this past weekend, introducing many more to this incredible story and groundbreaking step in the Civil Rights Movement.

 

There is a great story about the Hebrew Hammer, Hank Greenberg, one of the greatest Jewish baseball players and Jackie Robinson. Greenberg dealt with his own anti-semitism and discrimination as a ballplayer. This anecdote sums up our responsibility as Jews to fight for all and for equality for all. In Greenberg’s last season in baseball he was playing first base for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Robinson trying to run out an infield hit collided with Greenberg at first base. The next time Robinson reaches first, Greenberg, in a way, representing the Jewish community across the country just as Robinson was representing the African-American community for baseball fans, shook Robinson’s hand, and wanted to make sure he was not hurt on the previously collision. Greenberg told Robinson to stick in there and keep his chin up – that he was doing fine. A day later, Robinson told reporters that Greenberg was his “diamond hero,” his baseball hero.

 

This past week’s Torah portion was the double portion of Tazria-Metzora, a complicated part of the book of Leviticus that discusses various forms of tzara’at, a skin disease like leprosy. The Torah says: “The priest shall examine the skin for the contagious disease of leprosy and pronounce the person clean or unclean. As for the person with leprosy… being unclean, he shall dwell apart. The leper’s dwelling shall be outside the camp.”

 

The religious leader, the priest, the Kohen, has the discretion to determine if a person has this skin disease or not. The leper was separated out as an individual that is sick and if so, this person is quarantined for the welfare of the community, to ensure that a virus does not spread that an epidemic does not break out. The religious leader was given this task of determining if this person was ill in order to ensure that our morals and our ethics were still out the forefront or the way we lived our lives, to ensure that we didn’t rush to separate out those simply because they were different, to ensure that we didn’t rush to classify them as the other. The Kohen was to see each face, regardless of skin color, regardless of skin disease, as a face of God. The high priest was to see the other as himself, was to protect the community from virus, but prevent discrimination.

 

As America’s Pastime celebrates the 66th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier, we are reminded that while he played on the field with his teammates, during his travels to away games across the country he still could not stay at the same hotel, eat at the same restaurants, stop during road trips to use the same bathrooms, or drink from the same water fountains as his teammates. We, as a country and as human beings, have been guilty of separating out others because they are different, because they have a different skin color, a different sexual orientation. We, as the Jewish people, have been separated out because of different religious beliefs.

 

The Torah reminds us that while from a health stand point in the tight quarters that the Israelites lived in, such separation may be necessary, we must ensure that we are inclusive and don’t separate out the other. As Jackie Robinson once said, “I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking me. All I ask is that you respect me as a human being.” In this torah reading, the high priest ensures such respect for all human beings, remembering that all human beings are made in God’s image. May we celebrate Jackie Robinson’s legacy and remember that there are still many barriers we have built up that need to be torn down. In doing so, may we see the face of God in every individual.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky
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