The past couple of weeks have been stressful for me as a baseball fan. Why you ask? For those of you that don’t know, last week was Major League Baseball’s trade deadline. You see: with a third of the season left, Major League Baseball sets a deadline for teams to make trades, for contenders to acquire those missing pieces to take them to the playoffs, while the cellar dweller last place teams stock up on young prospects to make them better in the long term. After all, this is only the second time in fifteen years that my beloved Orioles were still competitive by mid-summer, so I was particularly interested in the wheeling and dealing.
This year’s trade deadline was especially interesting. With a another steroids scandal going on in baseball and the eminent suspension of several players, contenders were making trades to prepare for their hitters that’d be suspended and miss the rest of the season. However, the big news in the steroid scandal weren’t players for preseason favorites like the Detroit Tiger’s shortstop or Texas Rangers’ right fielder. It wasn’t even the circus of performance enhancing drug user Alex Rodriguez, the Yankees’ third baseman who is the highest paid player in baseball history. The big news was about the big bat having a bad year for a bad team. Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers was suspended for the remainder of the 2013 season. Braun tested positive last year for performance enhancing drugs, but was not suspended due to a technicality and claimed that he was framed. Sports writers and reporters have since nicknamed him Lyin’ Braun. Braun, won the 2007 National League Rookie of the Year and the 2011 National League Most Valuable Player award. Why does this concern us? In doing so, he became the first Jewish Major Leaguer since Sandy Koufax in 1963 to when the MVP.
Braun, nicknamed the Hebrew Hammer, for his mammoth swing and Jewish roots (his father is Israeli and his grandfather is a Holocaust survivor,) became the latest Jewish athlete in the mold of Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax, and Shawn Green, that the Jewish community had excitedly embraced as their own. Yet, the Jewish community hung our heads in shame when he was the goat of the performance enhancing drug scandal. Was it because our hero was a disappointment? Was it because our hero was a cheater? Did we expect something better because he was Jewish? Did we hold him to a higher standard? Did we hope that even if he did something wrong, no one would find out because he was Jewish?
There is a Yiddish proverb (frankly one that I don’t like repeating because I find it to be offensive,) that fits perfectly with our irrational fears in this situation: Shanda fur di goyim. Such a phrase concerns Jewish embarrassment when a fellow Jew does something wrong and really bad in public, in front of the world. Maybe it was the fear that such an act will lead to a rise in anti-Semitism. Maybe it was the fear that people would assume Ryan Braun, or any Jew in the spotlight for that matter, represents the entire Jewish people and if one cheats, then all Jews must be cheaters.
That is why so many in the Jewish community seem even more disappointed and angry that Jewish Bernie Madoff was responsible for the biggest ponzy scheme in history, or that Jewish Eliot Spitzer solicited prostitutes or that Jewish Anthony Weiner can’t stop tweeting obscene photos.
A colleague, Rabbi Jeremy Fine, who runs a website that profiles Jewish athletes in professional sports (I can hear the jokes now: it must not be updated very often,) announced the Ryan Braun suspension with the headline “Jewish Kids Everywhere Just Lost a Hero.”
Braun doesn’t wear a kippah. He doesn’t keep kosher. He didn’t even pull a Sandy Koufax and sit out a playoff game because of the High Holidays. Braun happens to be Jewish, but certainly didn’t sign up to be the Chief Rabbi of the Jewish people. We loved him anyway as our own.
“Jewish kids everywhere just lost a hero.” Wow. What a statement. I thought about the statement and asked myself: “What if we knew he cheated, would we not want him to be caught for the sake of saving face?” “Would we rather have a Jewish hero who cheats or a shattered and damaged idol?” After all, we are not perfect. Why would we expect our heroes to be perfect?
This past week, we learned on Parashat Re’eh that God commands us to open our eyes: Re’eh. See. We shouldn’t be blind to the fact that we are human. We embrace the fact that we are human. See that Anochi Noten lifneichem HaYom bracha uklalah. See that you are standing here with a fork in the road, in front of you a path of blessings, a path of always doing the right thing, and a path of curses, a path of lying, of cheating, of making mistakes, and doing wrong.
The reality is that what the Jewish people see – re’eh – is not a fork in the road at all. For no one has a single path of blessing and no one have a single path of curses. We have a bumpy road, each of us making good choices and bad choices, each of us doing things that we are proud of while also making decisions that we later regret. We pronounce the blessings standing atop Mount Gerizim and the curses atop Mount Ebal and as we cross the Jordan into the promised land, as we live our lives, we are surrounded by blessings and curses. The reality is that sometimes we do right and sometimes we do wrong. Do we want heroes that are perfect? Or do we want heroes that learn from their mistakes?
After all, Moses — about whom we are told at the end of the Torah v’lo kam navi od b’Yisrael k’Moshe, that never again was there another prophet and leader among the people of Israel like Moses — lost his cool, yelled at God, yelled at the Israelites and called them idiots. He never entered the Promised Land. Yet, he was still our leader. King David was romantically interested in Batsheva and sent her husband Uriah to the front lines of a war zone, with the intention of having him killed, so that he could marry Batsheva. He was still our king. Aaron was the high priest and first spiritual and religious leader of the Jewish people and he was responsible for gathering the gold jewelry of Israelite women, melting it down and making the Golden Calf. Jacob, Israel, our namesake as the Children of Israel, tricked his brother into selling him his birthright and tricked his father into giving him his blessing. He was still our namesake.
Even the patriarchs and leaders of the Jewish people are flawed. That is what makes our story so fascinating. We do not expect perfection. So why then, are we disappointed by the mistakes of our heroes? Why are we disappointed when Braun takes steroids and lies about it? Why are we disappointed when the Hebrew Hammer gets caught and gets punished?
Instead, I choose to celebrate our imperfections. I appreciate a hero that isn’t perfect. Do I want athletes and actors to be role models for our children? Sure. But I also recognize that they are human. We can still celebrate Braun as the greatest Jewish athlete of this generation, even if he is flawed, even if he did wrong and asks for a clean slate.
In the week ahead we celebrate Rosh Chodesh Elul. We begin the month of Elul and in doing so, we begin the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe. We spend the month doing teshuvah, repenting, in preparation for the New Year. In fact, in the weekday Amidah, three times daily, we ask for forgiveness for those things that we’ve wronged. We accept that we will make mistakes. We prepare to deal with the consequences when doing wrong and prepare to do teshuvah in order to have a clean slate.
If we teach our children, if we teach ourselves, that there is no one perfect but the Lord our God, that we all make mistakes, then do we want Jewish role models that we expect to be perfect, or do we want Jewish role models who mess up, make mistakes, and teach our children that we all will make mistakes and in turn, we ask for forgiveness? The Jewish MVP and admitted steroid user, Ryan Braun, said: “I am Jewish. I’m extremely proud to be a role model for young Jewish kids.” I want a role model that messes up, that does teshuvah, and asks for a clean slate, as we all do. I am disappointed in Braun’s cheating just as I am with the other dozen players that will be suspended in the largest Performance Enhancing Drug bust in Major League history. However, next season, I will give him what God gives all of us: a clean slate. I hope he can continue to serve as a hero for our Jewish kids, a leader in the mold of Moses, King David, and all of us: imperfect. As the month of Elul approaches, let us all accept our own imperfectioins. Let us ask for forgiveness, from others, from God, and from ourselves, and let us strive to be better in the year ahead.
– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky