Prayer for Opening Day: Baseball in 2020

Image: Batting practice before a spring training game at Las Vegas Ballpark, March 2020. Home of the Las Vegas Aviators. Photo by Ruth Adar.

As is my habit every year, I offer a Prayer for the Beginning of Baseball Season. Major League Baseball has chosen to go ahead with a short season this year, with changes to make play somewhat safer – beginning with the fact that there will be no fans in the stands. Still, some of us worry. Here is a version of my usual prayer for opening day, with an addendum for Covid-19.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, who created human beings out of the clay of the earth, breathing into them the breath of Your life. You set within each human being a love of play, a sense of fair play, and a desire for games that will satisfy both the body and the mind. From these human desires You brought forth baseball, a game of bats and balls played upon the diamond. It is an orderly game, as Your creation is orderly, and a mysterious game, as Your creation is mysterious, revealing to its devotees deep truths about Your world.

It is a game subject to times and seasons, and we give thanks for the fact that we are now at the beginning of the season of baseball. Amen.

It is a game subject to rules and statistics, and we give thanks for the Official Baseball Rules as well as their league variations, and also for the many statistics that add to the strategies of managers and the enjoyment of fans. Amen.

May our foes be unable to defeat us. Amen.

Let them be filled with dread at the sight of our bats. Amen.

And when the forces of Light and Dark join upon the diamond field, let our players play uninjured and mighty. Let the crack of the bat and the roar of the crowd fill every ear and every heart, so that the words of the prophet may be fulfilled: Play Ball!

And when this season nears completion, when the dwindling hours of day reflect the dwindling number of teams in post-season play, let our team remain victorious to the last inning, so that we may glorify Your Name with the World Series trophy. Amen.

And in this very challenging year of 5780, keep players, umps, and coaches mindful of safety measures and safe from the ravages of Covid-19. May the consistent use of precautions prevent the infection of their families and friends. Let this game be the restoring balm that it has always been for so many. Bless our play, and give us respite from the wrack of pandemic. May this year’s difficulties raise us all to greater standards of honest play, and to a greater appreciation for the blessings this game brings to us. Amen.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who enlivens our hearts with games. Amen.

A rabbinical note: The opening of the new baseball season (Rosh Z’man Beisbol) is a major festival for many American Jews. Discussions on the holiday are recorded in Masekhet Miskhakim (Games) and in Hilkhot Z’man Beisbol (Laws of the Season of Baseball) as well as in HaYachalom HaHakir(The Precious Diamond), a mystical work. The prayer above is from Sefer Greenberg, a book of prayers attributed to Jewish baseball great Hank Greenberg, although those skeptical Wissenschaft yekkies insist that it is likely a pseudepigraphal piece, probably written in about 5768 by a ba’al teshuvah in Detroit, probably a Tigers fan.

The addition “In this very challenging year” is the work of your humble servant, and any error or overreach in it is hers and hers alone.

Song for a Plagued Passover

Image: Meir Ariel’s portrait on the jacket of his “Best Of” collection

I have discovered an Israeli song that really speaks to me – my modern Hebrew is rough, so I hope that the translation below isn’t too far off. Avarnu et Paro – Na’avor Gam et Zeh is a song about things that wear at our humanity, and the impulse in Jewish tradition to persevere anyway.

There is an expression in Hebrew: gam zeh ya’avor — “this too will pass.” In this song, the singer, Meir Ariel (1942 – 1999) sings about all the things that annoy and discourage him, and finishes each verse with “We passed over Pharaoh, and we shall pass this too.”

Passover this week calls up our communal memory of slavery in Egypt, and of our deliverance from that terrible situation. We are now in the midst of what I can only describe as a plague, a miasma of disease and in some places, mismanagement as well. It is one of those terrible times in history in which many individuals do not survive, and it is a struggle to retain our humanity. Still we can survive it as a people, if we persist.

This is my mantra for Passover of 2020 / 5780: “We passed over Pharaoh, this will pass over too.”

Income tax, they made me pay extra
Value Added Tax, they got me with that too,
The electric company has cut me off,
The Water Administration shut me off -
I saw that I was deteriorating into a crisis, I started hallucinating ...
But we passed over Pharaoh, we'll pass over this too.

A computer error cost me a million, ATM swallowed my account balance, 
An electronic secretary denied me an interview, 
The DMV denied me a license 
To a mechanical lawyer, I dropped a token in the mouth slot ... 
But we passed over Pharaoh, we'll pass over this too.

I learned a useful and necessary profession 
So I don't get pushed and pressed, I persevered, 
I was diligent although the system was failing, 
I found myself with the work getting sparse ... 
But we passed over Pharaoh, we'll pass over this too.

Sometimes I am trapped on a crowded bus 
Or coming out of an exit, I am tense and urgent, 
Sometimes in the street jostling and rubbing, 
In demand for some relief, 
In the back, in the ribs, sometimes in the face, that elbow ... 
But we passed over Pharaoh, we'll pass over this too.

I turned aimlessly for a while, Without definition and without compromise, 
I lost height and consciousness, I thought maybe that defined it, 
To give an sharp and clear answer - I was torn about it. 
But we passed over Pharaoh, we'll pass over this too.
 
And now I'm stuck in the cutting edge, 
And to be honest I'm pretty indifferent. 
The situation is bad but I don't feel, 
I have no heart for all the stuff the screen presents. 
And the people's government goes down the road again - to my disgust ... 
But we passed over Pharaoh, we'll pass over this too.

Sheltering in Place, Feeling Lonely?

Image: Person sitting on a windowsill, looking out. (Pexels / Pixabay)

We are living through an unprecedented time. A pandemic is traveling around the globe, a very contagious disease that can cause, in some, a horrible death. Many of our scientists say our best hope for survival is to try to keep the rate of infection down by sheltering at home, to keep the disease from overwhelming our medical personnel and facilities.

Know that if you are sheltering in place, you are doing a mitzvah. You are one less vector of disease out on the street. You are saving lives.

If you are out and about because you are an “essential worker” (medical, infrastructure, law enforcement, first responder, etc.) you are also doing a mitzvah. You are literally saving lives and keeping the lights on. God bless you.

If you are out and about because someone needs groceries, or assistance, you are doing a mitzvah, as well. Just be sure that you do everything in your power to prevent infecting others and to keep yourself healthy.

Staying home – or going only to do essential work – can be boring. Most of us human beings have an inborn desire to be out and doing, to be social. However, if we are not extremely aggressive about distancing ourselves from others right now, we will endanger ourselves, our families, and countless others. So what are we social creatures to do?

  1. Use the phone and video to connect with family and friends. I talk every day to my sons and their partners, and to my grandson. It breaks my heart not to see and touch them, but having some contact keeps it bearable. You may even want to set aside a time when you always talk – routine can be very comforting. Unless you really need to talk about something difficult, avoid arguments. Focus on sharing love.
  2. Use social media wisely. Use social media to connect with friends, and to learn about online events and resources that will sustain you. Do not repeat rumors, speculate, or seek out conspiracy theories, even for “fun.”
  3. Learn and/or pray and/or play with others online. Look for learning opportunities, prayer opportunities, and play opportunities online. I will list a few I know about in my next post.
  4. Revive the art of letter writing. You can email someone without any physical contact at all. You can write a letter to a friend — there is something special about a card or a handwritten letter. If someone in your circle dies, you can write the mourners with your memories of that person.
  5. If you know someone at home with children right now, contact them and ask if you can help via video, reading a story aloud or doing a “show and tell.” If they say “no, thank you” respect that, but it might be a real gift to a parent trying to work from home while juggling children as well. Teens don’t want someone to “read them a story” but they may still enjoy a chance for an audience that isn’t parental. With them, listening is the most important thing: they need adults to listen to how this situation feels to them.
  6. If you have a skill that might entertain others, share it! You can do that by making a YouTube video, or a tutorial posted to Facebook, or via a video chat.
  7. Reconnect: what about using social media to reach out to old high school classmates, friends from some previous time, to touch base?
  8. Exercise. I find that when I’m feeling irritable and lonely, working up a good sweat can lift my spirits. What you do exactly will depend on your ability and your fitness, but be creative. Also there are some great resources online for free exercise videos, etc.
  9. Take political action: Write or call your elected officials and tell them what you think of the job they are doing right now.
  10. Take social justice action: Donate or raise funds for local organizations that care for people in need. The income gap in our economy means that this is a time of severe injustices: homelessness was bad before, but now it puts people at high risk for COVID-19. Hunger was bad before, but now it weakens the immune systems of young and old alike. If you have any extra funds, share what you can. If you don’t have extra funds, you can still help by “signal boosting” on social media – share opportunities for others to do good.

If you have other ideas about dealing with loneliness, I hope you will share them in the comments.

While We are Home, Things We Can Do to Help

Image: Cat stares at a door, wanting out. (Krystyna Kaleniewicz / Pixabay)

I’m 65, with significant risk factors relative to COVID-19. My wife is 71, and has even more risk factors. We are doing our best to isolate as completely as we can. I am aware that I am a happier person when I feel useful, which is why I’m teaching more free classes. (See Growing Jewishly in a Challenging Year: Options for Study Online.)

Today the SF Bay Area county health departments asked everyone to shelter in place at home for three weeks beginning midnight on March 17 (tonight.)

Isolating is not a selfish or cowardly act. We are saving lives by staying home, washing hands, not touching our faces, not overloading the hospitals, and doing all the things the health professionals say. The example of Italy should be all the warning we require as we try to “flatten the curve” of the pandemic.

Here are some ideas for ways to spend our time and improve our lives and the lives of others while we are doing our part to flatten the curve:

  • Continue being careful at home – when were your doorknob and doorbell last cleaned with disinfectant?
  • Go through they rolodex or the directory on my phone – who do I know who may be feeling very lonely and scared? Give them a call and listen more than talk. Listening is helping right now. Reach out via email, if phones aren’t the best option.
  • On social media, I watch who spreads reliable news, and who spreads titillating rumors. I follow the reliable news spreaders, and unfollow the rumor mongers. I refuse to let their garbage work on my head.
  • Now is a great time to revive our spiritual practices, or to develop one: meditate, or pray, or exercise with spiritual intent.
  • Now is a great time to learn! Take an online class, use software to learn a foreign language, read, read, read! YouTube and other online resources can have you exchanging greetings in Hebrew in no time.
  • Public libraries often offer access to e-books.
  • Eat as healthfully as we can.
  • Get enough sleep! Sleep boosts our immune systems, and too many people are on a sleep deficit.
  • Exercise is important. Stretch, lift weights (books?), do a little cardio. I do 20 minutes of exercise every day. If you are in an apartment, call or leave a note to the people downstairs asking when the best time for you to make noise.
  • Tzedakah: for those of us financially secure enough to do so, this is a great time to give to charities that care for people with food or housing insecurity.
  • Do you have fantasies about writing a book? This is a great time to keep a diary: we are living through history.
  • We need to care for our pets. Appreciate their company. It isn’t a great time for cats or dogs to run around outside, though: if they get lost, we cannot go look for them.
  • Passover is coming! We each need to prepare according to our observance and our situation. (See Passover Prep: Begin in Egypt.) (More about Passover in a future post.)
  • Be kind to other members of our households. This is a stressful time, and it’s easy to get cranky. It’s a good time to practice appreciation and to let criticism go.
  • Find a synagogue that streams services online. Start with your local community but I will see about posting a list of streaming services in a later post.
  • Count our blessings, beginning with life and breath.
  • Be aware that there are some who are in difficult situations, with unpleasant or abusive housemates. Hold them in our hearts.

Ideas for those home with children:

  • Make and decorate cards and send them to loved ones (or save for later delivery.) Index cards or folded printer paper make great cards. “Junk mail” can make collages.
  • Reading to kids and letting them read to us – and to each other! – is a wonderful activity.
  • Beware too much scary news on TV.
  • Make puppets out of old socks, and rehearse a show for the adults to watch when they take a break from home-work!
  • Put music on – everyone dance!
  • This is a great opportunity to teach age-appropriate household skills to kids. Even little ones can “dust” with a cloth.
  • Set up phone and video chats for the kids with their friends and with family they can’t visit right now.
  • For older kids, this might be a great time to learn a craft. YouTube has lots of great videos, and both knitting and crochet can be learned with any string, if you have needles or a hook.
  • Use YouTube to learn Jewish songs, and songs from your family’s heritage.

In the Face of Pandemic: Mitzvot

Image: COVID-19 virus against the image of DNA. (Pete Linforth / Pixabay)

If you are looking for information about COVID-19 (“coronavirus”) then I recommend you look at the FAQ on the CDC website. I’m a rabbi, not a doctor, and I’m sticking to my area of expertise: how does Torah figure into this picture?

However big or little a deal COVID-19 turns out to be, Torah provides us with guidelines for dealing with the situation. There are opportunities for mitzvot all around us. A few of them:

Pikuach nefesh (Preserve life!) – One of the most pressing mitzvot, one that outweighs even the keeping of Shabbat, is the preservation of life. What does that mean, in this case? It means that each of us has a sacred duty to stay informed and to follow the practices that medical experts recommend for preventing the spread of the virus: handwashing, covering coughs and sneezes, and staying home if we are sick with a respiratory ailment.

For myself, I’m not shaking hands with anyone for the duration of this thing, and I’m not going to give or receive hugs. It may feel awkward at first but I don’t think the risk is worth it.

Veahavtem et ger (Love the stranger) – Xenophobia (fear of strangers) and racism are always wrong. People of Asian descent have been experiencing a rise in anti-Asian behavior since the outbreak of the virus. They are no more likely to be a source of infection than anyone else. It is important that we not fall into such behavior or tolerate it in our presence.

Lo telekh rakhil b’amekha (Do not run around telling tales to people) – Make sure that everything you repeat is from a reliable source, and cite your sources. Don’t spread gossip or unreliable information. Don’t do it on social media, don’t do it in the workplace. Don’t speculate (“I bet they are going to start rationing Tylenol!”) because that can be repeated as a “fact” by someone careless and cause panic.

Give tzedakah – As with any other misfortune that affects the whole of society, the poor will be hardest hit. Contribute to organizations that care for and feed the poor. Malnourishment and homelessness make people more susceptible to disease. Anything we can do to relieve the suffering of the poor will reward all of us.

Bal Taschit (Do not waste) – Do not run around in an N-95 mask if you are healthy, unless you are caring for individuals who are infected.

CDC does not recommend that people who are well wear a facemask to protect themselves from respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19. You should only wear a mask if a healthcare professional recommends it.

CDC FAQ on COVID-19

Those are just a few mitzvot that occur to me. What about you? Are there mitzvot you think particularly apply to this situation? Please add them to the comments!