In The Big Inning: Baseball, B’reishit, & the Quest for Wholeness
by Rabbi Rick Brody
The National Pastime and the start of our Torah both capture our imaginations with their celebration of the idea of return to our primordial home.
The 2012 Major League Baseball postseason has, so far, been nothing short of spectacular in terms of drama, heroics, and very balanced competition. Today is the eve of the second pair of “final games” in the best-of-five, first-round, “division series.” In the 18 years since the start of the division series format, never before have all four match-ups gone to five full chapters. These games are reminding baseball fans why they love this sport and are injecting great spirit, excitement, and joy (and disappointment) into fan bases in cities across the country. Indeed, as I am finishing this post, the Yankees lead the Orioles in a tight 2-0 score a little more than halfway through the game.
Today is also the eve of Shabbat B’reishit, the Sabbath on which Jews throughout the world celebrate the sacred narrative that contemplates the origins of the universe, of humanity, and of meaning–and their relationship to the Divine. We read from the very beginning of the Torah, the parashah known as B’reishit, also the name (“Genesis,” in English) for the first of the 5 Books that comprise the foundational text of our people.
Baseball fans who appreciate the majesty of the Biblical tradition and its influence on world culture are likely to delight in the pun that appears in the title of this post: We can say that the Torah (in its most common English translation) asserts itself right off the bat (another pun, intended) as a treatise on the holiness of baseball. Its initial words are “In the big inning.”
So, as baseball teams march closer towards the end of their pursuit of a championship and our global Jewish “team” begins its annual journey through our sacred writings, I’d like to reflect on the majesty of this sport and relate it to Torah. How can some of baseball’s qualities inform our quest for meaning and inspire us in exploring our own big innings–and beginnings?
First, I should make clear that I have no intention to attempt to prove that there is anything inherently religious, divine, or magical about a sport. It is a game and it is rooted in competition, a feature of reality that often stands in contrast to cooperation, the latter usually and rightly considered the more proper feature in manifesting holiness . But I do believe that the basic structure of baseball and the way it has evolved, especially in the American imagination, lend itself very well–not unlike Torah–to analogies that we can apply to life more broadly, with uplifting results.
The primary poetic feature of baseball that makes it fit for religious interpretation is the manner in which a team scores. Unlike the two other main approaches to competition–the linear, battlefield approach (one team or player attempts to invade or conquer another’s territory), or the acquisitional approach (opponents are both attempting to reach a goal simultaneously and the victor is the one who gets there first, thus claiming that ground exclusively for herself or her team)–baseball’s approach is restorative: It’s about return, about coming home. Literally, every score in the game is completely the result of a player starting out in a given spot, journeying outwards, and completing a successful circuit (usually with the help of teammates), returning safely to the place of origin. Yet, the safe return bestows upon the team a new status–the accomplishment earns the reward of a run, a unit of transformation that becomes the building block of victory. The only trick is that this team also must play the foil–it must attempt to prevent its opponent from achieving a higher number of successful returns home.
Note that there is no conquest of “foreign territory” and no stealing of something that the other party in the journey has any access to. A runner ventures away from home but for the purpose of making it back. The journey is driven by the idea that the return will elevate the runner and his companions, that–to borrow basic language from this seemingly universal literary device–it will signal some growth or maturity to a new level of being, a greater understanding of self, and a greater fulfillment of purpose that benefits the collective.
These elements lead us to some of the critical features we find at the very beginning of the Torah. The most prominent theme of homecoming is the expulsion of Adam and Eve from their idyllic starting point, the garden of earth and vegetation that exists outside of time (note that baseball, inside its pastoral boundaries, has no clock!). The real challenges to the heroes begin after their acquisition of knowledge, which sends them into a life of toil and hardship and a hope of a future return to the Garden. Our sages teach that our experiences of true joy and connection, most notably under the chuppah at Jewish weddings and in the shelter of Shabbat, are the glimpses of eternity that the Garden symbolizes. They are our homecomings.
Our story has an earlier hero, the Creator (God). We learn nothing from the Torah text of a starting point or home for God. Some theologies might speak of God’s home “in the heavens,” but the Torah tells us that the Creation story is one of the formation of shamayim va’aretz (heaven and earth). God created it All, we are led to believe. The mystics suggest that at the real “beginning,” God was The All, existing before (outside of) time–in absolute, undifferentiated unity. Somehow (here is where mystery reigns), God developed an identity that was separate from something else. The Singular became Plural. And it was from this differentiated plurality that God, still fundamentally singular in Godself, began relating to that which was “not God” and shaping everything that remains “not God.” Yet, for many, the goal on our spiritual journeys is to reunite with that which is fully God, to come home to the Place of wholeness. In fact, the Rabbis of antiquity refer to the Eternal as HaMakom (“The Place”), suggesting that Divinity is the destination of our journeys.
We come upon the Divine journey amidst that which is not Divine in the cryptic and often overlooked second verse of the Torah (i.e. Genesis 1:2), which tells us of the “stuff” that God starts with. We don’t know if these materials existed eternally–either alongside or potentially even preceding the Creator who is the subject of our story. But we do learn that the problem God needs to “conquer” is one of Chaos (tohu vavohu), the unformed nature of this proto-creation. It is all potential, with no defined identity of its own other than being “not God.” God’s own pursuit of home, the Place (“within” God) of Divine wholeness, is challenged by these forces which, like the defenders in baseball, have no coherent goal of their own other than to foil the pursuit of the “other” (in this case, God). God the Creator (somewhat different than God, the Absolute Timeless Unity) has taken on a distinct identity, like a player who separates from her team to begin her journey to “create a run.” The journey takes stages–three bases or six days. The final base and the final day of the process is one of culmination, of return to the whole. We call it home. Or we call it Shabbat. It is a place of transformation and elevation, of complete safety, of the flourishing of our entire being, the emergence of soul.
We, in our journeys, imitate the Divine Creator by making our way through the elements that in their very nature conspire to thwart us. We exercise ingenuity and creativity to find ways to thrive in spite of our obstacles, and our passage through dangerous territory makes our homecoming all the sweeter. Each little return, especially each Shabbat, is an opportunity to feel more connected to a greater collective. It gets us not only a little closer back to the Garden of our human beginnings (big innings), but also engages us in the Divine homecoming, the cosmic repair to the original unity that existed before time.