This morning, we learned of the death of Vin Scully who was, in my opinion, the best baseball announcer ever. As I thought about the joy that baseball announcers bring to our lives, I thought of a sermon I delivered in 1992 for Parashat Naso which contains Birkat Kohanim, the blessing of the priests. Here is the sermon I delivered that week:
SERMON FOR PARASHAT NASO 1992
A VISIT TO THE BROADCAST BOOTH
This past week, I fulfilled one of my lifelong ambitions.
It wasn’t quite for real but it was the next best thing.
On Thursday night, I was able to sit in a booth on the top level of Tiger Stadium, put on a headset, watch a monitor and simulate a broadcast of one inning of a game between the Tigers and the Red Sox as part of the “Fantasy Play By Play” promotion. Despite the fact that the inning that I chose to broadcast, the third inning, was the quickest, least interesting of a long and otherwise interesting ball game, I felt, for those ten minutes like I was where I was always supposed to be.
As I sat high atop the stadium and barely resisted all inclinations to lock myself in for the duration of the season, a serious thought came to mind. I thought about one element that connects baseball to this week’s parasha, to Judaism in general and to myself.
Baseball is a game of rituals. These rituals are found on two different levels. First, there is the ritual involved among the fans. In no other game or pastime is there such a unifying sense that you are participants, doing what you are supposed to do. You have to stand up for the seventh inning stretch. You have to eat hot dogs, unless thankfully spared by the laws of kashrut. You have to at least make a passing attempt to keep score in the program. You have to. There is no choice.
But, baseball’s more enduring ritual is the ritual on the field. Each game, in essence, is exactly the same: a very carefully structured, balanced, regulated progress of 3 strikes, 3 outs, 3 times 3 innings, 60 feet 6 inches from the pitcher’s mound to the plate and 90 feet between the bases. As my teacher in such matters, the late Bart Giamatti wrote: “Baseball is a game of symmetrical demands in a symmetrical setting which encourage both passion and precision.”
Giamatti expressed the idea that because of baseball’s ritual precision, the players were encouraged to act passionately: to find the meaning in the precision by creating within the tight boundaries of the ballpark, new responses to the immutable structures of the game.
As I sat on top of the stadium Thursday evening, I realized that one of the responsibilities of the announcers is to express the passion and allow others to feel like they were there and involved in the passionate ritual.
Before I listened to the tape of my broadcast, I knew I had failed miserably.
I only spoke. I knew what I was feeling but I wasn’t passing it along. If someone had read the script of my performance, it wouldn’t have been bad. But, I just didn’t pass along the emotion along with the ritual.
What a challenge it is. It is what separates Ernie Harwell and Vin Scully and Harry Carey and, my favorite Red Sox announcer, Ned Martin, from all the rest.
And, it is also the ultimate challenge for those who engage in public Jewish ritual.
We have chosen as a people to believe that service to God needs to be repetitive in form, consistent, predictable. We have taught that our prayers and rituals mean more than the sum of the meanings of each individual word, that the structures are worth keeping merely because they have been kept for so long and because their roots are in our experience of the divine.
But, somewhere, the passion must come through.
This morning, we read the section of the book of Numbers which contains birkat kohanim, the blessing of the priests which is such an important part of our tradition.
Let me share with you two brief comments on this blessing.
First: the priestly blessing is introduced with the words; koh tivarachu, thus you should bless the people of Israel. The commentaries offer many explanations to the word: thus. Each of these teachings indicates that the blessing had to be said in a particular way: aloud, in Hebrew, standing, with arms outstretched. The blessing was not just the words but also all that went along with the words.
But Jewish tradition added an element to this ritual. It was not enough that this be a beautiful grouping of three phrases, each with a similar cadence, 3 words, 5 words, 7 words; the structure was not enough, even if we add the different elements which were required: aloud, standing etc.
When the priests blessed the people, they preceded the blessing with another blessing: that God had commanded them to bless the people in love. It was not enough that they say the words and perform the rituals. They had to do it with love.
I am quite sure that, on occasion, priests said this blessing without that sense of love. But, it is the potential that ritual has to be infused with love which keeps it alive. It is, in our tradition, the infusing of symmetrical structures with subjective emotion that brings about true worship.
I couldn’t pass that along the other night at the ballpark. No matter how much I love the game, I couldn’t quite pass it along the way I could while sitting in front of the TV or in the stands watching with friends. There the passion came through but not in the broadcast booth.
But, my experience taught me that what a rabbi does is not so different from the announcer. We have our ritual and we have people performing the ritual in varying degrees of love and sincerity. It is the rabbi’s role to make sure that those who aren’t on the field feel the passion involved in Jewish ritual by explaining, elucidating and commenting, orchestrating and coordinating. No rabbi succeeds in those tasks all of the time. But, it is the potential to do so that keeps us trying.
The other night, I learned that there are similarities between the two respectable professions: baseball announcer and rabbi.
I also learned the most important thing: no matter what my dreams might be, I’d rather be here.