Like a field of dreams, Yom Kippur counts on ghosts to inspire. In Kevin Costner’s role in “Field of Dreams,” his character Ray Kinsella carves a baseball diamond from a cornfield after hearing a mysterious whisper, “If you build it, he will come.” Encouraged by the prophecy and by the spirits of departed ballplayers, Ray in the end discovers his estranged father behind the plate and engages him in a game of catch.
The High Holidays, too, can be stirred by voices of contrition, correction and change. On Yom Kippur, I, too, will carve something precious from a neglected past.
This year, the Day of Atonement falls on the eve of Sept. 23, when the Mets will host the Braves. For the believers in Flushing, N.Y., baseball might seem delightfully temporal, repentance as distant a notion as spring.
In my synagogue, that holy day will be celebrated as an occasion of longing, an extra-inning playoff of abstinence and prayer. I may not be rooting for the home team that afternoon, but I will be encouraged by baseball’s oddities.
When Yogi Berra quipped “it ain’t over till it’s over” during the summer of 1973, the Mets were in last place, finishing a dismal 44-57. By Aug. 30 the team was 61-71, 6.5 games back with 29 to play. Before the season closed the Mets would claim the NL East, victorious in 21 of their last 29 contests.
The Mets infiltrated the postseason with a record of 82-79, to date the worst percentage by a division champion. After raising the NL pennant and battling to a World Series Game Seven, it was finally over when the Mets fell to the Oakland A’s.
Yogi was only half right. It can be over before it’s over, as playoff spots are routinely clinched before the season ends. Baseball is, however, unique in disallowing any single game to be over before its final out. Only on a diamond can a team come back from any deficit with no buzzer, whistle or horn interrupting its rally. Just ask Mookie Wilson, who in 1986 delegitimized Billy Buckner on the 10th pitch of his heroic at-bat after the Red Sox were at three times one strike from deliverance.
Baseball is a game of second chances.
For diehards, Yom Kippur provides a final opportunity in a season of do-overs. When the Israelites forged a golden calf at Sinai, Moses was compelled to smash the original tablets, tossing the first pitch in an epic struggle for God’s favor. Throughout a heated summer, Moses labored atop the hill, earning the right to carve new tablets by offering himself for his team.
On Yom Kippur, his efforts rewarded, the prophet descended triumphant, with God’s pardon and trophy slabs in hand. From the assurance of spring through the worry of summer, Moses carried his team to a fall salvation.
Relived annually, the Jewish season of second chances gets underway with the advent of Elul, the final month before the New Year. From then, each morning after services a shofar sounds and a special psalm is recited, calling to mind the far-reaching potential of the ensuing homestand.
For some, Rosh Hashanah, 30 days later, is the conclusive day of judgment, when the righteous and the wicked are inscribed in their respective tomes. Yom Kippur comes 10 days after that, allowing journeymen extra innings to settle their score. Before the season’s final strike, everyone will have their say at the plate.
The process of repentance can invigorate, awakening dormant courage from slumber. But introspection is notoriously difficult to maintain, the stretch from Elul to Yom Kippur draining. Like an ordinary baseball season the Days of Awe rely more on storylines than thrills, more on drama than excitement. Similarly, baseball is neither raucous nor bold, especially when “90 percent of the game is half mental.”
By some estimates, 90 percent of the game is also spent standing around. Baseball’s fleeting moments of action account for but 17 minutes and 58 seconds of a typical three-hour game, according to the Wall Street Journal.
From on-deck circle to bullpen, from glove adjustments to shaking off signs, baseball is an exhibition of exaggerated preparedness. Everything important in baseball occurs in the heartbeats between anticipation.
What made the pennant race endearing in 1973 and the rally against Boston amazing in 1986, were the unhurried ways they unfolded. Few things happen suddenly in baseball.
The Day of Atonement is similarly drawn out, prone to rushes of emotion and spans of boredom, too. Between its haunting first inning and expectant last are 25 self-denying hours, an ascetic journey of supplication, ceremony and song. Like baseball, Yom Kippur is a slow game, one that rewards patience with equal measures of elation. A classic Yom Kippur unfolds without hurry, its promise swelling cautiously.
Before the ghosts arrived, Ray Kinsella sculpted sacred space from profane, building it so “he will come.” Before knowing who he was, Ray was prepared for his arrival.
Mendel Horowitz is a rabbi and family therapist in Jerusalem, where he maintains a private practice working with adults and children. He can be found on Twitter @MendelHorowitz.