A Second Chance, September 25, 2015

The Erev Shabbat Service between Yom Kippur and Sukkot is usually one of the most sparsely attended during the year. We experience prayer fatigue.  After being here Tuesday night and all day Wednesday for Yom Kippur, neither our bodies nor our spirits have yet recovered.  Perhaps the observance of Sukkot, our z’man simchateinu, our time of rejoicing, is just what we need, a festival not of the individual but of family and community, a celebration of God’s bounties that does not require much from us except for an expression of gratitude.  After the deprivation of Yom Kippur, the emphasis on ripe fruits, grains, and vegetables during this harvest season is quite welcome.  Is there more, however, to Sukkot than this?  The correct answer is “Of course!”

The Torah reading for Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot, the intermediate Shabbat of Sukkot, is from the Book of Exodus, chapters 33 and 34.  For those of us without encyclopedic recall of the biblical text, these two chapter come directly after Moses descends from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments and is confronted with revelers engaged in orgiastic behavior around the golden calf.  Moses is so enraged that he throws the God given tablets to the ground and many of the revelers are put to death for the sin of idolatry.  In these two chapters, God gives Moses and the Jewish people another chance- Moses to control his anger and the Jews to realize their serious mistake.  God tells Moses to go back up the mountain for another forty days and nights during which God will give Moses another set of commandments.   Moses brings down the two tablets from the mountain and, among many legal pronouncements, proclaims the observance of the Shlosh Regalim, the three pilgrimage festivals of Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot.  This connection between God granting us a second chance to get it right and Sukkot is not lost on us.  If fact, all of the emotions that roil up within us on Yom Kippur have not dissipated within just five days.  Sometimes, we cannot complete the task of teshuvah on Yom Kippur.  So God has given us another seven days of Sukkot to finish the work of dealing with our unresolved feelings from Yom Kippur.  God builds second chances directly into our calendar.

I was saddened after Yom Kippur to learn of the death at the age of ninety of one of my favorite human beings- Yogi Berra.  Yogi, who lived in Montclair, New Jersey, actually died in my hometown of West Caldwell, New Jersey, where he was residing in an assisted living facility.  Yogi, the ungainly and not too attractive famed Yankee catcher, was arguably the best catcher in baseball history.  He was also one of my childhood heroes, regularly leading the Yankees to pennants and World Series championships.  His great appeal was that he was just a regular guy with inordinate talent.  He came from an Italian immigrant family who lived on the “Hill” in St. Louis, the Little Italy of that city.  He and Joe Garagiola were buddies growing up, playing sandlot ball together.  Yogi’s success was that of all regular guys would dream of someday wearing pinstripes and playing in the Mecca of baseball, Yankee Stadium.  Yogi was just as well known for his fractured English and his famous phrases, such as “It’s not over till it’s over,” “It’s déjà vu all over again,” and “When you get to the end of the road, take the fork.”  There are so many of them that have become part of our vernacular and they make us love him even more.

Yogi went on to coach and manage the Mets, Houston Astros, and the Yankees after his playing days were over.  In 1984, while coaching the Yankees, the owner of the team, the notorious George Steinbrenner, elevated him to manager, replacing the volatile Billy Martin.  The Yankees finished third that year but Steinbrenner promised Yogi during spring training in 1985 that come what may, he would finish that year as Yankee manager.  “After just sixteen games, the Yankees were 6-10 and the impatient and imperious Steinbrenner fired Berra anyway, bringing back Martin.  Perhaps worse than breaking his word, Steinbrenner sent an underling to deliver the bad news.”[i]  The firing, and the manner in which it was done, provoked one of baseball’s most legendary feuds. Yogi did not set foot in Yankee Stadium for fourteen years.  During that time, private donors helped establish the Yogi Berra Museum on the campus of Montclair State University and awarded Yogi an honorary doctorate in 1996.  Three years later, a minor league ballpark, Yogi Berra Stadium, opened there as well.  In January, 1999, George Steinbrenner went there to meet with Yogi Berra and offered him a semi-apology.  He said, “I know I made a mistake by not letting you go personally.  It’s the worst mistake I ever made in baseball.”[ii]  Berra did not quibble with the semi-apology and peace between them was made.  Sometimes, that is a good as it gets.  In July of that year, Steinbrenner held a Yogi Berra Day at Yankee Stadium.  If his apology did not go far enough, his gesture of homage to the great Yogi Berra certainly did.  Sometimes, dear friends, it takes us more than five days to apologize for our wrongs.  There can be a second chance, a Sukkot of the soul, anytime during the year.  Let’s try to not let it go for fifteen years as Steinbrenner did with Yogi.  May they both rest in peace as together we say: Amen

Shabbat shalom and Chag sameach

[i] NY Times, September 23, 2015.

[ii] Ibid.

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