Monday, September 28, 2015

Rabbi Schwartz's Sermon for Kol Nidre 5776




Barry Bonds broke Hank Aaron’s iconic career records for home runs on August 7th, 2007. Do you know what happened to the ball? It was put up for sale on an on-line auction. On Sept. 15th of that year the fashion designer and billion dollar lifestyle company head Marc Ecko payed $752,467 for it.

Then Ecko, who, by the way, is Jewish and was born, raised, and lives here in New Jersey, did something quite interesting. He created a website to let fans decide what to do with the ball. He gave them three options to vote for: donating it to the Baseball Hall of Fame untouched, donating it to the Hall of Fame with an asterisk branded on its surface, or launching it into space forever.

Well, 19% favored chucking it into space, 34% preferred to see it donated to the Hall as is, and 47% voted to brand it before donating.

So, majority wins, that’s exactly what Ecko did. Home run ball #756 sits in Cooperstown with a permanent asterisk.

Some applauded the stunt; others decried it. Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins said, “Why brand it? It’s an accomplishment of 21, 22 years. It hasn’t been proven that Bonds used steroids. It’s a cruel world we live in.”

But fellow Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer said, “I think time will sort out how you want to view it. The fans have a pretty good sense of what has gone on.”

Ecko himself said, in a bit of an understatement, that the poll results prove that fans believe Bond’s feat was “shrouded in a chapter of baseball history that wasn’t necessarily the clearest it could be.”

When I do a unit on integrity and cheating with my confirmation class, I have my students debate what should have been done with the ball. It makes for an interesting exercise. What intrigues me most is the issue of legacy. How should Bonds be remembered?

As a sports fan I find myself thinking about this question a lot, maybe more than I should, but there are so many provocative cases.

But before I share several of them, I must note that today marks the 50th anniversary of perhaps the greatest Jewish legacy sports event of all-time. Yes, it was on this Yom Kippur in 1965 that Sandy Koufax refused to pitch in the World Series.

As Koufax wrote in his autobiography: “There was never any decision to make, because there was never any possibility that I would pitch. Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish religion. The club knows that I don’t work that day.”

The writer Zev Chafets reported twenty years later, while doing research for a book: “I was told by hundreds of Jewish men across the United States that their most important Jewish memory was of Sandy sitting out the Series.”

Rabbi Daniel Pernick wrote recently: “Two specific events produced more Jewish pride than anything else in the turbulent decade of the 1960s—Sandy Koufax’s refusal to pitch on Yom Kippur in 1965, and not quite two years later, the Six Day War in June 1967. To this day, the name Sandy Koufax is uttered with awe-both because of his athletic prowess and his courage to stand true to his values.”

Now to the flip side:

Lance Armstrong was once a hero of mine. I read his book and actually gave a sermon about why he was a genuine hero. All the good work he did in the fight against cancer—how does that measure up against the lying and deception we now know went on for years?

What will be the ultimate legacy of all those players who confessed to using performance enhancing drugs or did not confess but are strongly suspected of doing so?

What will be the ultimate legacy of athletes who came to great achievement legitimately, but then broke other rules, like Pete Rose?

What will be the ultimate legacy of athletes who came to great achievement legitimately, but then broke social mores, like Tiger Woods?

Or consider the cautionary tale of Joe Paterno. In the course of three months, three years ago, the legendary coach lost his job, his reputation and his life. The NCAA initially punished both him and his team not because they did anything wrong, but evidently because they did not do enough right—in taking stronger steps to stop Jerry Sandusky’s abusive behavior. They stripped Penn State of 111 victories. This past January they reversed themselves and restored the wins. Sports Illustrated wrote a piece about it entitles, “It’s Complicated” with the tag line, “Joe Pa got his wins back, and his statue may follow. But legacies aren’t so easily restored—or defined.”

Paterno himself said in 2011: “This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight I wish I had done more.“

Respected sportswriter Tim Layden concluded his piece, “Stripping the victories was a punitive act with no connection to the crime. But the wins don’t exonerate Paterno. They add a thin layer atop an already complex legacy, comprised of the very good and the very bad.”

There’s that word again—legacy. And today, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is really about this—what do I want my legacy to be?

How can I make amends for the bad, and elevate the good?

How can I tip the scales of justice and compassion in my favor?

How I can I add a fresh chapter to the Book of Life that will be to my merit?

The most perplexing and problematic portion of our prayers… is also the most powerful and provocative. Why? Because it deals with our legacies.

It came earlier in our service and its worth delving a little deeper. When we started the U’netaneh Tokef section we said, “On Rosh Hashanah we reflect, and on Yom Kippur we consider: Who shall live for the sake of others; who, dying, shall leave a heritage of life.”

The traditional “Who Shall Live, Who Shall Die” prayers mince no words. “You write and You seal, You record and recount. You open the book of our days.” But then later, “and what is written there proclaims itself, for it bears the signature of every human being.” God may inscribe the Book of Life, but we generate the content. We sign off, as it were, on what is written. Our tradition argues that there is a Judge and there is judgement. But it also makes clear that we supply the facts—the evidence.

And there is more: the liturgy continues, “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who shall live and who shall die… who shall be secure and who shall be driven… who shall be tranquil and who shall be troubled… who shall be humbled and who shall be exalted,” and then the punchline, maybe the most important line of the entire High Holidays: “But repentance, prayer, and charity temper judgment’s sever decree.”

There are acts that we can do to actually reverse, or at least mitigate, our misdeeds. There are steps we can take to address a tarnished legacy. They are three in number and endless in potential: teshuva—repentance; tefilah—prayer; tzedakah—charity.

I could, and should, give a separate sermon on each of the three. Maybe next year. For now, I emphasize one basic point: Legacies are earned, not given. Legacies are an open book, not closed. Legacies are a life-long endeavor, not instant.

It’s not too late to temper the decree. It’s not too late to make repairs by making amends. It’s not too late to add a new chapter.

Besides Yom Kippur, when is another time that we speak about legacies? At funerals, during eulogies. Many, many times I have officiated at the funeral of an ordinary person, who achieved neither fame nor fortune. After all, how many will do that? And some times there is not a great deal for me to say, though I try very hard to listen to the family, and encourage them to speak as well. But other times, I do have a great deal that I can say. And I may need to limit myself because there a line of others who want to talk as well. Again, the person led an ordinary life, career-wise, wealth-wise, accomplishment wise. But the eulogies come pouring forth. You say to yourself: there is something extraordinary happening here. What is it that separates the ordinary from the extraordinary in these modest lives?

Our tradition has a word for it, or rather a phrase: keter shem tov—the crown of a good name.

The one who gave and asked nothing in return. The one who would give the shirt off their back. The one who loved freely and unconditionally.

The one who offered before being asked. The one who stood loyal and tall. The one we called a true mensch.

The one who made mistakes but admitted them. The one whose scowl ended in a smile. The one who laughed not at you but with you.

The full Talmudic teaching says, “There is the crown of royalty; there is the crown of the priesthood; there is the crown of scholarship… but the crown of a good name exceeds them all.”

It’s an extraordinary statement about legacy. Judaism has deep respect for royalty, for clergy, and certainly for scholars. We applaud those who devote themselves to leadership and to learning. The just ruler, the gifted healer, the inspired teacher… these are legacy makers.

But the accumulation of power, prestige, and even scholarship for its own sake—divorced from their ethical moorings—that’s a blot on one’s legacy, whatever the achievement.

Some will merit many crowns, but the one within reach of all exceeds them all. The greatest crown can be worn by the common man. The crown that will make all the difference in how we are remembered. The crown of a good name.

On this Yom Kippur we pause and reflect on the legacy we are already creating and will one day leave behind.

Few of us will be elected to any Hall of Fame save one, the circle of our family and friends.

Swing for the fences; hit a home run. Just make sure there is no asterisk on it.

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