Twenty-Five years ago today, 8/8/88, the Chicago Cubs turned the lights on for the first time for a night game at Wrigley Field. At the time, I identified as a die-hard Cubs fan. As a native South-Sider, however, I found myself in adulthood gravitating towards the White Sox as the first box score I check in the morning. The White Sox won the 2005 World Series. More recently, the Chicago Blackhawks won their second Stanley Cup in four years, so all of Chicago’s major sports teams have won at least one championship in my lifetime–except the Cubs. What’s more, they haven’t even won a championship in the lifetime of my 99-year-old grandmother. On this momentous anniversary in Chicago sports, here is a sermon that I delivered eight years ago in Cleveland after the White Sox won the pennant in which I describe my complicated relationship with Chicago’s two baseball teams.
Baseball and Sukkot: Lessons in Irony
Rabbi Edward C. Bernstein
This past Monday night as we sat down in our Sukkot for the first time this year, we said the traditional sheheheyanu prayer of thanksgiving in which we express our gratitude to God for giving us life and sustaining us and allowing us to reach this occasion. For me, this blessing had special significance. You see, as a native of Chicago I entered Sukkot with the knowledge that for the first time in my life, a Chicago baseball team was going to play in the World Series. Tonight, the Chicago White Sox face the Houston Astros in their return to the World Series for the first time since 1959 and seek to win their first championship since 1917. I am still pinching myself that this is really happening.
Some of you may be sitting here wondering, isn’t Bernstein a Cubs fan? Two years ago he was kvetching about the Cubs falling short, now we’ve got to hear about the White Sox!? It is complicated, I admit. But the confluence of the White Sox winning the pennant with both Yom Kippur and Sukkot have forced me to reflect on the religious significance of this historical moment in my life.
First, Yom Kippur. It was only a week ago, after all, and the spirit of confession is still in the air. Furthermore, our tradition holds that final, final judgments aren’t made until Hoshana Rabba, the last day of Sukkot, and that it is appropriate to offer confessions through that time. So, I have a confession to make. I always liked the Cubs and the White Sox, but having grown up on the South Side of Chicago, I was originally more of a Sox fan than a Cubs fan. In 1984, when the Cubs made a valiant run for the pennant, I shifted my allegiance to the Cubs. For many White Sox fans, including close members of my own family, this was utter heresy. They accused me of being a fair-weather fan. For various reasons that I won’t burden you with now, I don’t think this was the case. For one thing, time has proven that I have stuck with the Cubs for over 20 mostly futile years. Nevertheless, I have retained an affinity for the White Sox. While they don’t always have the glitz or media attention of the Cubs, there is a certain charm about them. As the second team of the Second City, they are very much the team of common working folks, who, with some justification, see the Cubs as an elitist team that excludes working fans by playing mostly day games. While I think the Cubs’ commitment to baseball in the daytime is family friendly and good for children, I have always respected the loyal White Sox fan. The problem is that over the years their teams have been so darn boring. Until this year.
A few weeks ago as the Cleveland Indians, the team of my adopted hometown, made a serious challenge to overtaking the Chicago White Sox, I was forced to reflect more closely on my views of the White Sox. As my official biography on the Shaarey Tikvah web site notes, I am a Cubs fan. This year, though, with the tremendous season enjoyed by the White Sox, I have been repeatedly asked by members of this congregation how I feel about it. My stock answer has been that I am a Cubs fan, but still support the Sox. Of course, I was rooting for the Indians to make the playoffs, but not at the expense of the Sox. My public confession is that I have a complicated history in rooting for the White Sox, and I hope they win.
With Yom Kippur out of the way, let me turn to Sukkot. Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret are both known as z’man simchateinu, the season of our joy. Certainly, for Chicago White Sox fans, this is a great season of joy. Yet, the name z’man simchateinu is somewhat of a paradox. In Chicago, people are excited about playing a summertime sport on a 40-degree, drizzly October night in Chicago. Furthermore, the history of Chicago sports, particularly baseball, is one of such futility, Chicagoans have a fatalistic attitude. We question if this is really happening and if a World Series victory will ever actually occur. Is another Black Sox scandal looming, God forbid? Will an innocent fan interfere with the game and lead to defeat, as happened with the Cubs two years ago? Will the Sox continue to benefit from the umpires’ calls or will they go against them this time? Or, more prosaically, will the Houston pitching simply be better than their own? If they fail this year to win it all, will it take another 46 years to get this far?
A Bartlett Giamatti, the late Commissioner of Major League Baseball, once wrote about baseball:
“It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.”
Giamatti, a New Englander and former president of Yale University, wrote these words in the 1970s after his beloved Boston Red Sox endured another season of just falling short. Little did he know then that Boston would eventually win a World Series in 2004, after an 86 year drought. This year, it is Chicago that seeks to end an 88-year drought, but Giamatti’s fatalistic attitude resonates for us Chicagoans. There is a great paradox in rooting for a Chicago baseball team in October: abundant joy and hope mingled with fatalism and doubt.
Indeed, this paradox precisely parallels the rituals associated with Judaism’s season of joy. For seven days, we leave the comfort of our homes and dwell in sukkot, fragile, open-air booths. We do this not in the summer months when it would be more convenient, but in the fall when the weather is much more capricious. We do not pamper ourselves with luxuries or recline like we do on Passover. The sukkah reminds us not of our strength and security, but of our vulnerability.
There are other practices that contradict the nickname z’man simchateinu. Every day of Sukkot we beseech God, Hosha Na, please save us! In the season of our joy, one of the holiday’s central liturgical pieces cries out that we are mere mortals and that we need God to save us. Is this a declaration of our joy?
In a little while, we will read from the cynical, fatalistic Book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). “Vanity of vanities, all is in vain,” Kohelet teaches us. All of life is hollow, meaningless, amounting to nothing. “There is nothing new under the sun.” Our striving for knowledge and power is futile. We are all mortal. So begins the special Biblical book that we read on Sukkot, the season of our joy.
This coming week, on Shemini Atzeret, we will pray that God will bless us with rain so that we don’t starve. Furthermore, we recite the Yizkor memorial prayers in memory of our loved ones who have passed away. The next day, on Simchat Torah, the day we rejoice over the gift of the Torah, we read about the death of Moses. All of this again on z’man simchateinu, the season of our joy.
The renowned theologian Rabbi Neil Gillman calls this paradox “the emotional ambiguity of Sukkot.” This ambiguity is captured in the book of Kohelet, which is why we read it on this holiday. Kohelet’s conclusion is the opposite of our first impressions. Kohelet’s message in the end is that we should not give up. We must confront and live with the inherent ambiguities of life. “We can find joy,” Rabbi Gillman writes, “in the sheer fact of living, in work, in love, in companionship, in the serenity that comes with understanding and accepting our limitations.”
The statement z’man simchateinu, therefore, is a statement of defiance. Despite all of the pain and suffering in the world, we will go on living. Despite it all, we will express joy. Despite all of the curveballs life throws us, we will not be deterred from celebrating life’s blessings.
For a Chicagoan like me, and I suspect for Clevelanders as well, October baseball is a precarious time. We are joyful over the success that helped us reach this point and hopeful for the future. At the same time, we are humbled by the countless failures in the past and cynical, like Kohelet, that it can ever be any different. Baseball, like Sukkot, is a metaphor for life: joy and frustration playing off each other in a never-ending cycle. For Chicagoans of my generation, never has the cold chill of October felt so good, and yet we acknowledge that it is still cold.
During this season, despite our sense of fragility and uncertainty, let us heed the Psalmist’s teaching, ivdu et Hashem b’simcha, serve God with joy!