By Dena Schusterman
There is a story told about a bar mitzvah boy. It was 1955, and this young boy was living in Brooklyn. His parents arranged for him to have a private audience with the Lubavitcher Rebbe to receive a blessing in honor of his upcoming day.
They drove to 770 Eastern Parkway, the small Hasidic community in Crown Heights that was still struggling to recover from the ravages of Stalinism and the Holocaust, but this lad was an all-American kid, born and bred to play baseball.
The Rebbe greeted them with his comforting and warm handshake, requesting them to please take a seat. The Rebbe briefly blessed the boy that he should grow to become a source of pride to the Jewish people and to his family. As they turned to leave, the Rebbe surprised the family of Americans with the question he addressed to the youngster: “Are you a baseball fan?”
The boy replied that he was.
“Which team are you a fan of, the Yankees or the Dodgers?”
The Dodgers, replied the boy.
“Does your father have the same feeling for the Dodgers as you have?”
“Does he take you out to games?”
Well, every once in a while my father takes me to a game. We were at a game a month ago.
“How was the game?”
It was disappointing, the 13-year-old confessed. By the sixth inning, the Dodgers were losing 9-2, so we decided to leave.
“Did the players also leave the game when you left?”
Rabbi, the players can’t leave in the middle of the game!
“Why not?” asked the Rebbe. “Explain to me how this works.”
There are players and fans, the young baseball fan explained. The fans can leave when they like — they’re not part of the game, and the game could, and does, continue after they leave. But the players need to stay and try to win until the game is over.
“That is the lesson I want to teach you in Judaism,” the Rebbe said with a smile. “You can be either a fan or a player. Be a player.”
The above story is told on Chabad.org by Dovid Zaklikowski.
To me as an all-American gal, this story is significant for the lesson the Rebbe is teaching us about the daily life of a Jew and the rules a player follows when he is in the game. I thought about this story most recently when reflecting about the upcoming holiday of Shavuot.
Shavuot is its own holiday in as much as it is a culmination of the Passover events. My thoughts about Shavuot began as well with an incident that occurred on Passover.
While back home in California for the holiday, I was sitting and reminiscing with a grade school classmate of mine whom I had not seen in 20-plus years. We were discussing the stress of some parents in the Northeast over the shortage of seats in Jewish private schools.
My friend waved off the whole ordeal with these words: “If the parents followed the rules, their children would get into the schools.”
Her comment was off the cuff, but somehow her words irked me. Was it the concept of following the rules for parents? They (and I) have to follow rules?
Um, I thought, we are adults, and we make up our own rules.
Or was it what I perceived as her insensitivity to the families struggling to find the right school for their children?
Had I been living outside the traditional Orthodox community for so long that I had become uncomfortable with the notion of conformity and rule following? Had the liberal, American, free-thinking, creative-expression, learn-your-own-way, take-what-you-like-and-leave-what-you-don’t, modern Jewish community rubbed off on me?
As I left my friend and walked the beautiful streets of my childhood neighborhood in Hancock Park, I started thinking about rules and my earliest memories of playing games.
Baseball is the American pastime, and it is all about the rules. Even when our children play on a league, there are rules and uniforms.
Baseball takes a rookie and turns him into a high-paid, disciplined professional with his sites on his team reaching the World Series. A pitcher does not free-form throw at will, nor does a baseman bring his comfy chair to a particularly hot game. The rules are clear, and the rules are followed — or you are out of the game.
But the players are in it because they love it, they understand it, and they feel it — as the Rebbe pointed out, perhaps even more than the fans.
The holiday of Shavuot is a little less known than Passover. There is no grand haggadah to recite, shofar to blow or sukkah to erect. Its most significant practices are to eat dairy foods, stay up all night studying Torah and hear the Ten Commandments read from the Torah.
Shavuot is celebrated on the 6th of Sivan to remember the giving of the Torah in the Sinai Desert 49 days after the Jews left Egypt. It is described as the day we became a nation, the day we were finally uplifted from our slave mentality, ready to be a free people, the nation of Israel.
Really, it is the culmination of what began with yetziat Mitzrayim (leaving Egypt), characterized by fleeing slavery and being subservient to human whim, and going toward a new life, a free life, a life filled with meaning and purpose. Shavuot is the apex of the journey toward freedom, receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai from G-d through Moses.
If you do not have Shavuot, how does the story of Egypt and Pharaoh end? Do the Jewish people ride off into the sunset by way of the split sea?
Why is freedom hard? Why do we need the Torah to help us leave behind a slave mentality and truly become a Jewish nation?
It is learning a new way to be. On Shavuot, we received the guidebook for this way of life: the Torah. There is the common challenge to observant practice, but didn’t the Jews leave one type of slavery only to enter into another one, enslaved to G-d and his Torah?
Therein lay the answer to my discomfort in speaking with my friend. I easily fell into the mistake of thinking that rules and protocol are what keep us down and submissive. Then I remembered that it is quite the opposite: The rules afford us the ability to succeed, to know our boundaries, to push them, to reach them, to question them but to know they are there for our preservation. As the famous maxim states, “More than the Jews have kept the Shabbat, the Shabbat has kept the Jews.”
It is not about blindly following rules, but taking them and integrating them into our life, deepening our understanding of the why of the Torah and the who of G-d. It is about internalization, taking the commandments and connecting to them in such a way that they become our own. As a result, we should be further from the slave mentality and closer to betterment of ourselves and our environment — l’taken ha’olam (tikkun olam), as is stated in the Aleinu prayer.
Ultimately, it is about taking the responsibility of being a player seriously by being a serious Jew. Chag sameach!
Please join me on Shavuot, Sunday, June 12, to hear the Ten Commandments being read at 11:30 a.m., followed by brunch, at Chabad Intown, 928 Ponce de Leon Ave., Atlanta. Or visit your favorite synagogue.
Dena Schusterman is a mother of eight, the rebbetzin of Chabad Intown, the director of the Intown Jewish Preschool and a wife and spends her time writing and interacting with, teaching and mentoring the people in her community. A version of this article appears in Atlanta’s Nishei magazine (nishei.org).