March 20, 2008
Rays of light
A couple of events over the past week have given me a nice dose of optimism for the Jewish people. The first event was a Little League baseball game in a Jewish league called Blue Star, where my son Noah's team, the Rays, were playing a very talented team called the Jays.
For a while, I thought I was in one of those "Bad News Bears" movies, where one team fumbles everything while the other team is smooth and confident. And just like in the movies, near the end of the game, the Jays scored five runs to go up 6 to 1 (they have a "mercy" rule in this league where they stop an inning if you've scored five runs).
Now it was the Rays' last chance. These cute little kids came into the dugout and, instead of being demoralized by the five runs they had just given up, decided they were going to rally. No kidding. In their first two games, they had barely managed to get one or two hits, and only walks and an error gave them their only run. It'd be a miracle just to get someone on base -- let alone score five runs!
You could just imagine the thought bubbles over the parents' heads: "These kids are in for some hard lessons, like you better learn to lose and it takes more than enthusiasm to make it in life."
But these little guys didn't know from grown-up realism. It's as if they completely forgot their past failures at scoring runs, and this was simply a brand new inning where anything could happen. While I was bravely trying to match their enthusiasm, all I was thinking was: There will be peace in the Middle East before the Rays score five runs against the Jays.
Well, 30 minutes later, I was feeling a lot better about peace in the Middle East. Don't ask me how, but the Rays scored those five runs. Grounders, errors, fly balls, a few walks, gutsy running, an amazing double and lots of wild cheering from the dugout -- including an improvised backward twist of their cap that they called the "rally caps" -- gave the Rays a miracle comeback that they'll probably still remember when they're grandfathers.
When the shock wore off, part of me felt like an idiot for having been so "realistic," and for not taking more seriously the optimism of these courageous munchkins. For the first time in years, I started thinking without cynicism about the incorrigible optimism that some of my friends on the political left have always had for peace in the Middle East -- an optimism I have rarely taken seriously.
It took a little miracle at my son's baseball game to make me consider the possibility of other miracles. When I shared this story with a friend who is to my political left, he took over my role as the cynic and joked that when it came to peace with our enemies, Israel might as well be "miracle proof." Of course I knew where he was coming from, but on that cool and windy Sunday in the San Fernando Valley, the miracle of Noah's Rays was so mind-blowing that I was in a mood to think only of miracles -- even unimaginable ones.
The second event that has fueled my optimism happened at my friend Rabbi David Wolpe's Sinai Temple. For those of you who were around about seven years ago, you might remember that a good chunk of the Orthodox community wanted to run the Conservative Rabbi Wolpe out of town for suggesting at a Passover sermon that the Exodus might not have happened exactly how it is explained in the Bible. Although Rabbi Wolpe's ultimate message was to promote faith and mitzvahs despite any doubts one might have about the literal veracity of Bible stories, this idea got lost in the front-page coverage of the Los Angeles Times, and the controversy sparked a firestorm that simmers to this day.
You can imagine, then, my shock and awe when I saw Orthodox rabbis and all these Orthodox Jews gathered at Sinai Temple on a Monday night to help launch an organization called Standing in Unity. About 200 Jews of all denominations were there to listen to Rabbi David Baron of the Reform Temple of the Arts, Rabbi Yitz Jacobs of the Orthodox Aish HaTorah, Rabbi Wolpe and the Israeli Consul General Jacob Dayan speak passionately about Jewish unity in honor of the eight fallen yeshiva students of Jerusalem.
What was remarkable was that the Orthodox were not simply participants, but were instrumental in putting the whole event together. Rabbi Jacobs talked about transcending our differences by focusing on the things that bind us, like preserving Jewish lives and Jewish peoplehood. Rabbi Wolpe connected Mordechai's message to Queen Esther in the story of Purim -- that she was given the unique power of a queen precisely to help save the Jewish people -- with the idea that our generation has been given unique powers and resources precisely to help our brothers and sisters in Israel.
Everyone -- Reform, Conservative and Orthodox -- spoke about Jewish unity.
Of course, it was easy to be a cynic and remind yourself that only tragedies seem to bring Jews together; or that Jewish unity is a tribal idea that undermines the importance of healthy self-criticism; or even that a night of unity hardly makes for a movement.
But cynicism and even realism don't allow for miracles. Jews coming together despite their sharp differences is a little miracle, even if it took a crisis to make it happen. It's like the story Rabbi Jacobs told of the British soldier during the Falklands War who pointed his gun at a lone Argentine soldier left in a foxhole. The Argentine covered his eyes and started saying the "Shema," at which point the British soldier, who was also Jewish, dropped his gun, hugged his "enemy" and said the "Shema" with him.
It was a week to be reminded that miracles do happen, in foxholes, baseball dugouts and even synagogues.