Isaac, Jacob, and Big Papi: Lessons from the Torah and the Boston Red Sox

I lost a bet with our Cantor. He is a huge Red Sox fan and me being a die-hard Orioles fan, we made a bet concerning which team would be most successful during the 2013 baseball season. To some it is no surprise that the Red Sox won the World Series. After all, after going 85 years without winning a championship, they are now the most successful baseball team over the past decade, winning three championships in ten years. However, Las Vegas odds-makers would agree that I think I had pretty solid ground to stand on when I made my bet. Last year, in 2012, the Orioles were one of only five American League teams to make the playoffs. The Red Sox finished dead last. In fact, they finished with their worst record (93 losses!) in 47 years! The chances of the Orioles returning to the playoffs were good. The chances of the Red Sox finishing anywhere but last place again were slim. 

Red Sox Champion PictureHow slim? ESPN reported that the Red Sox’s 93 lose season in 2012 to their World Series Championship season this year was the greatest turn around in Major League Baseball history. No team in the span of one season, has gone from that bad to that good. Yet, somehow the Red Sox did so. Interestingly enough, among the many individuals who were acknowledged and thanked by players for leading them to the promised land, one player acknowledged Bobby Valentine, their historically bad, toxic manager of 2012, who only lasted one season. During his terrible managerial run in Boston, he benched all-star players because he didn’t like them, started verbal and physical fights in the clubhouse with coaches, pitted some players against others, and dragged the names of players, coaches, and front office personnel through the mud. Yes, Bobby Valentine is the anti-hero of this story. Yet, he too somehow, led to their success. He led to this turn around and inspired and motivated the players to change in spite of him. 

There are two fascinating narratives that we just read about in the Torah, found in Parashat Toldot. The well-known narrative is the interaction between twins Jacob and Esau. Esau is really just looking for love and acceptance while Jacob is always trying to one up his brother. It is ironic after all, that the wicked one of this story, Jacob, the one who tricks his brother into selling him his birthright and who steals his father’s blessing, is the namesake of the Jewish people. The trickster Jacob becomes Israel. The trickster is the father or our nation, becomes the faithful who wrestles with God, becomes the father of the twelve tribes. There is no specific point in the text that emphasizes Jacob’s transition, from a trickster to a tzaddik, a righteous person. Yet, the change is evident. The Jacob who honors his children, takes care of his family, is concerned about his beloved Joseph, and blesses his children on his own deathbed is not the same Jacob that steals his father’s blessing. The person who we are now, is not necessarily the person who we have to be. Jacob, or specifically Israel, is our namesake, not because he is perfect, but because of his imperfections. We focus on the fact that Jacob was far from the best and yet, changed for the better. That is who we strive to be. We strive to be better than we were before.  

We also read the story of Isaac, Abraham’s son, pretending that his wife is his sister in front of King Avimelech, as a way to save his wife Rebekah’s life, and spare his life as well. The irony is that Abraham did the exact same thing only a couple of Torah portions before. And then in Genesis Chapter 26, verse 18, we read:

And Isaac dug again the wells of water, which they had dug in the days of Abraham his father; for the Philistines had stopped them after the death of Abraham; and he called their names after the names by which his father had called them.

Isaac repeats his father’s journey. This is especially significant looking at his relationship with his father: his father tried to sacrifice him and the Torah does not make a single mention of dialogue or conversation between the two following the attempted sacrifice. Isaac never talked to his father again. Isaac’s relationship with his father was forever broken. Yet, he still acknowledged his roots, the relationship he had with his father, and how it led him to the man he was today. He retraced his father’s footsteps, walked in his tracks, to get to where he needed to go. 

The beauty of the message of this narrative in the Torah is this: who we are now is not who we will be later. We take the lessons from our parents and we hold on to them. We learn what to do and what not to do. The blessings and mistakes are equally important in helping to shape us. The mistakes that they make — and that we make — don’t prevent us from changing for the better. 

Judaism is about change, renewal, and rebirth. Every morning we begin our liturgy with the words:

Elohai Neshama Sh’natatah be, tehorah hi. My God, the soul which you have given to me anew on this day, is clean, is pure.

It doesn’t matter what happened yesterday, or last year, or last season. In the words of the devoted sports fan: There’s always next season. And next season, you may just win the World Series. 

The Red Sox brought in a new manager and free agent players, but the committed core, the Pedroia’s and Lester’s and Big Papi’s, all remained the same. They grew their beards long; they reached out to the city of Boston and helped it heal following the worst terrorist attack in our country in twelve years. Most of all though, they rallied around their negative experiences of last season, determined not to repeat themselves. They were determined to no longer be Bobby Valentine’s Red Sox! They were Boston strong, but strong because of their past mistakes. Strong because they used the past to guide them on their future. Like Isaac. Like Jacob. Like all of us. For the failures of yesterday can lead to the successes of tomorrow. May we never settle for last place. And may we all be strong enough to find the champion within.


– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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