On baseball and prayer


I’ve been waiting my whole career to start a D’var Torah with a reference to baseball.

As many of you know, I am a life-long, huge baseball fan and this Boston’s girl’s beloved Red Sox are currently playing in the World Series. For the past month I have been parked on my couch for those 8 pm games that stretch until midnight, often falling asleep, but managing to wake up before the final out in the ninth. As the Red Sox go, so goes my mood. I am so happy on the mornings after a win, and honestly so crabby on the mornings after a loss. But this is baseball heaven.

On the night last week when the Red Sox won the American League Championship Series, your former-Phillies favorite Shane Victorino hit a grand slam to put the Red Sox ahead. After the game, Victorino was asked on the field the classic question, “What are you feeling right now?” I always feel a little bad for these baseball players when they are asked this question, they play baseball for a living, and they are asked to find the words in those moments of great emotion to describe how they are feeling . How many of us can do that? Obviously searching for the right thing to say, Victorino said “RE-JUBILATION.”

Which is absolutely not a word.

But it’s wonderful.

Think about Victorino’s situation. He in the past few years had been cast off by a few teams. He found himself in the position to make a contribution to a winning team. With the bases loaded and his team behind, he found himself able to hit a grand slam that sealed the victory. This victory sent the team to the World Series, gave them continued life.

The word he needed to describe what he was feeling had to encompass a sense of REDEMPTION, WONDER, JOY, and REJUVENATION.

So he found RE-JUBILATION.

RE-JUBILATION struck me because I realized that, in one made-up word, is what I’m looking for when I enter this sanctuary on Friday night. That’s what I hope to find in prayer.

How many of us have the words to describe what we are searching for when we enter the synagogue? How many of us have the words to describe the emotions we feel as we make our way through the service? How many of us have the words to describe prayer?

It’s not like we don’t pray all the time. Maybe we do, or maybe we don’t, include God in our thoughts when we say “Please, let this happen…,” “Please, help me get through this…,” “Thank God this went ok.”

Given our discomfort, our doubt, our cynicism, our sense of inadequacy, how do we pray so that we may find that RE-JUBILATION, that combination of rejuvenation, redemption, wonder, and joy, at the end of every week?

In this week’s Torah portion, we read about the first prayer. Abraham sends his servant Eliezer to find a wife for his son Isaac. Eliezer is nervous. What if the woman won’t come with him? What if he doesn’t find a suitable person?

After Eliezer starts out, alone, on his journey to attempt this task for Abraham, he prays to God. The Hebrew word used to describe what he does is VAYOMAR, “and he said,” not “and he prayed.” There isn’t even a word to properly describe what Eliezer is doing.

The ancient Masoretes who applied the trope, the melodies, to our recitation of Torah, they knew something was missing. This word VAYOMAR needed something to express more than “he said.”  It needed something to connote prayer.

So they assigned this word a trope melody so unique that it is found only 4 times in Torah.

[chanted] Usually the Torah sounds something like this, and you can begin to predict what’s coming. And sometimes, you hear something a little different, but then it returns to the predictable.

But this is what the VAYOMAR sounds like. [chanted]

This melody is called the shalshelet, and each of the four times it is used in Torah there is a great deal of commentary and discussion as to why this melody, so unusual, is used. Why is it used here?

Did Eliezer have prayer skills? Had he been taught to pray? Had he attended enough services that he felt he knew what he was doing? No. This was spontaneous, this was unconscious. This was the prayer that we say to ourselves all the time, whether we use the word God or not, it’s the “Please, let this happen” prayer.

In that shalshelet we hear him acknowledge all of the fear, the uncertainty, the excitement of anticipation and the possibility of transcending, and the dread of doubt and the possibility of falling. [VAYOMAR chanted] We bring all of that to prayer, every time we try to pray.

But Eliezer knew what he was looking for. He was looking for assurance and help. To begin the prayer, he acknowledges the fear, doubt, and uncertainty, but also the potential to rise up. And then he focuses on what he is praying for.

We too need to do both those things to pray. We must first acknowledge the struggle, how hard it is to pray. Then we need to be clear what we’re looking for. And it’s different for each of us.

For me, the experience of juxtaposing REJUBILATION with the shalshelet has clarified my own prayer approach immensely. Now when I pray I will first hear the [chanted] SHALSHELET, and then I will remember REJUBILATION. I will acknowledge how hard it is to pray and then focus on what I want to feel when this service is over. Consider what you might hear in your head or say to yourself before you start praying. And think hard about what it is you are looking to feel after praying.

And I’ll add a little prayer for the Red Sox.  Shabbat Shalom.