Ya Gotta Believe
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For all that can be said about Seaver, the most extraordinary thing I learned about him this past week was that Seaver very nearly didn’t become . . . Seaver. Despite his being the son of two fine athletes, Seaver’s rise to the majors was not at all a sure thing. Believe it or not, Seaver actually didn’t make his high school baseball team until his senior year. It was only after high school that he put on the two inches and thirty pounds that enabled him to throw his signature fastball. Even as Seaver pitched through college, he was training for a career in dentistry. When he refused a lowball offer from the Dodgers, then baseball scout Tommy Lasorda told him, “Good luck in your dental career.” Soon thereafter, the Braves made an offer, but owing to an arcane Major League rule too complicated to get into right now, not only was Seaver’s contract with the Braves voided, but he lost his college scholarship, and the NCAA declared him ineligible to play college ball. Eventually, thankfully, the decision was made to hold a lottery for teams interested in Seaver, and on April 2, 1966, baseball history was changed forever when the name Mets, was, literally, pulled out of a hat. (NY Times, B. Weber, September 2, 2020).
I love the Seaver story. I love the late-blooming, zigzag, “could have gone the other way” aspect to Seaver becoming Seaver. Like Michael Jordan, who didn’t make varsity until his senior year, like Tom Brady, who was the 199th pick of the 2000 NFL draft, Seaver’s greatness was not a given, was nearly overlooked, and was almost not realized. Throughout his life, Seaver was forever grateful for the gift of being able to play the game he loved. He knew that but for the grace of God, it could have turned out very differently. He persevered; he had faith in himself. He believed that who he was on any given day was not necessarily an indication of who he would be the next, and he always maintained hope in the future.
Not me, not you, not any of us could be faulted if our reservoir of hope has been somewhat depleted of late. Here in New York, for the moment, we may be doing a bit better, but we see the coronavirus numbers rising around the country, Israel going on another lockdown, a vaccine yet on the distant horizon, a stutter start to the beginning of the school year, a toxic political climate, and an economic and social recession that has cast a long shadow over us all. It’s not just that times are tough, nationally, locally and personally; it is the Groundhog Day aspect of it all, one day after the next after the next. If there was ever a time to lean into well-deserved pessimism, isn’t this that time?
Which is why, more than ever, we need hope – a big Tom Seaver dose of hope – hope in ourselves and in our future. We need to know that history is not destiny, that no matter the stumble or setback, where we are today need not be where we are tomorrow. I say this not as a prayer, nor as some sort of shallow optimism. I am aware, acutely aware, of the aching loss and sorrow permeating so many lives. It is shared, it runs deep, and in many instances, it cannot even be put into words. But hope – hope is where it all begins. Hope is the precondition for all change, the great motivator, the prompt that reminds us that recovery is possible, the reminder that though we may fail, it is always worth making the effort. Hope is the necessary counterbalance to inertia, apathy, and despair; it is the willed choice to stare into the face of disappointment and write a new page. The philosopher and psychologist William James described the difference between the sick soul and the healthy soul. There are always at least two ways one can respond to adversity: with purpose, resolve, and generosity of spirit – what James called the healthy soul, or with indifference, despair, and mistrust – what he called the sick soul. Not everyone has the choice – clinical depression, to be clear, is not a willed choice. But for many of us – most of us, most of the time – while we may not choose our setbacks, the posture in which we respond to those setbacks is a willed choice. Hope is that posture, the manner in which we choose life each day.
We need look no further than this morning’s Torah reading – no further actually than the first three words – to see this sentiment given expression: atem nitzavim hayom. “You are standing here today,” Moses charges the Israelites. It is a curious turn of phrase, a prompt for much Rabbinic commentary. “You are standing here today.” Why specify today? Might we think it was any other time? That this was some prerecorded, asynchronous communication? The answer, I think, relates to the psychology of the Israelites, who, having wandered through the desert for forty years, now face an unknown future. “Today,” Moses says, “you are standing here.” A specification meant to exclude tomorrow, the day after that, and the day after that. Today you are standing in the desert, but tomorrow? Tomorrow will look different. This week’s Torah reading is actually a double parashah with two names: Nitzavim-Va-yeilekh. Nitzavim, you are standing here, and Va-yeilekh, meaning to go forward. Moses knows he will not enter the Land, and his deputy, Joshua, is no doubt frozen with fear at the thought of an unknown tomorrow. Hazak ve’ematz, “Be strong and of good courage,” Moses tells Joshua. You can’t be nitzavim, standing in one spot indefinitely; you have to be va-yeilekh, willing to move forward. It is not going to be easy; enemies abound, and you yourself will slip. But have faith in yourself. Today, hayom, you are standing here; tomorrow, we have to move forward.
Rosh Hashanah is just days away. If you haven’t yet done so, now is the time to put in your food order, download your mahzor, and figure out how to screen mirror your iPad to your television. But with all the things you are ticking off on your punch-list, make sure you have some hope. We need it as a counterweight to the suffocating spirit of the hour and as a motivator for the year ahead. We need to know that who we are today is not who we will be tomorrow, that we are capable of change. The heroes of our people – in the Bible, not baseball – are all people whose greatness was neither a given nor easily achieved. They all came from anonymity; they persevered; and they grew to be who they became. Those figures whose greatness was foretold – like Saul, Samson and others – they all end up being disappointments. It is deeply problematic that our society measures people’s aptitudes when they are teenagers. Everyone “pops” at a different time – academically, socially, athletically, and in other ways. It takes the right context, timing, and combination of variables to bring a person from one level to the next. There is something so wrong about a world that tells a young person there is a particular moment when their fate is sealed. We are never judged, Rosh Hashanah teaches, on the basis of an as-yet-unrealized future. Today is today; tomorrow is yet to be written.
As important as it is to have hope that we can be different tomorrow, the upcoming holidays remind us that other people are also capable of change. It is one of the strangest things, if you stop to think about it, that Rosh Hashanah comes ten days before Yom Kippur. It makes no sense to celebrate new beginnings and then look back and atone for everything we have done wrong. The other way would be far more sensible. Until you pause to consider that without a belief in new beginnings – the message of Rosh Hashanah –Yom Kippur would not be possible. The premise of Yom Kippur is the belief that the person who wronged you is capable of change, that their apology does signal true contrition. What is the act of forgiveness if not the willed belief that a person is capable of change? Around this time of year, I always reflect on the questions the Talmud tells us we will be asked when we stand before the gates of final judgment: Did you conduct your business honestly? Did you designate time for Torah study? Of all the questions, the one that resonates with me the most this year is tzipita lishua? Did you look forward to salvation? Or in simpler terms, did you believe that tomorrow will be better than today? There are no promises in this world. I have no idea what the future holds. I have no idea if we will be forgiven by those we have hurt, nor for that matter if those we forgive will prove worthy of our forgiveness. But you have to hope, you gotta believe, you have to have faith in the power of tomorrow. And then you have to leverage that hope toward making the ideal of next year come closer to reality.
Eventually, as we all know, Seaver did make it to the majors, and in his rookie season he distinguished himself enough to be chosen to play on the All-Star team, in a time, unlike today, when being selected really mattered. The sportswriter John Moriello recounts that on the day of the game, Seaver was so bright-eyed and starstruck by his teammates – he just couldn’t believe where he was – that he proceeded to introduce himself to each one of them, including his hero Hank Aaron of the Atlanta Braves, then in his 14th season in the majors and two thirds of the way to breaking Babe Ruth’s record for career home runs. “Kid, I know who you are,” Aaron said to Seaver, “and before your career is over, I guarantee you everyone in this stadium will, too.” Aaron’s prediction, we know, would prove prophetic. and Aaron would later reflect that Seaver was the toughest pitcher he ever faced. As for Seaver, he would recall that exchange – the encouraging word from his hero – as a turning point prompting him to believe that where he was standing was only a prelude for what could come. It was in that moment that he acquired the hopeful confidence to meet the challenges ahead of him.
“I know who you are, and before this is over, everyone else will too.” Said biblically: atem nitzavim hayom. You stand here this day. Hazak ve’ematz. Tomorrow can be different. Let us be strong and of good courage. As Moses charged Joshua on the threshold of the Promised Land, so to all of us as we turn to enter a new year.