noah: shelter from the storm

When I think about flooding and baseball, Hurricane Harvey immediately comes to mind. In August 2017, the monster category 4 storm made landfall in Texas and devastated the greater Houston area. It is tied with 2005’s Hurricane Katrina as the costliest tropical cyclone on record, with many areas receiving more than 40 (!) inches of rain over just a few days, flooding hundreds of thousands of homes.

Flooding is a fact of life in Houston and all of coastal Texas. Growing up, school wasn’t called on account on snow but on account of rain: The Bayou City is only 50′ above sea level. The 1900 Galveston hurricane — still “the deadliest natural disaster and the worst hurricane in U.S. history” — featured prominently in my childhood education.

Downtown Houston is seen behind the flooded Buffalo Bayou a few days after Hurricane Harvey came ashore in August 2017. An estimated 27 trillion gallons of water fell over Texas and Louisiana during a six-day period. Paul Jordan Anderson/DoubleHorn Photography

At the time of Harvey I was living in New York and Boston, where news of hardship in the backwards South is sometimes met with schadenfreude. (To be sure, “[t]he city of Houston is a monument to what might charitably be described as Texan determination or less charitably as unbounded human arrogance.”1) I watched with a heavy heart as my hometown was engulfed, houses and highways swallowed up. (B”H, my family in Houston escaped unscathed.) Two blocks from the George R. Brown Convention Center, where at the peak of the crisis 10,000 people took refuge, stands Minute Maid Park, where the Astros were making a run at a division title for the first time in 16 years.

A friend joked that he thought I might be able to write this week about how the Astros emerged from the flood of the playoffs after the destruction of all other American League teams. Alas, it was not to be, and after a valiant run the ‘Stros were eliminated by the Tampa Bay Rays on motzei Shabbos. But his point remains: For me it is hard to focus on anything other than the disaster of the flood in parshat Noach, and I struggle with a Gd who so easily wipes out nearly all of humanity, especially as a native of a place where the power of water is lethal.

But Gd chooses to save Noah, and the instrument of that salvation is an ark. It is interesting that though Gd commands Noah to include an opening in that ark, the window is not meant for Noah to determine when to leave the ark. Gd makes that decision for Noah when Gd only orders him to leave the ark more than two months after his bird test-balloons (Gen. 8:14-16).

Rashi comments on the word that is first used to describe the opening, tzohar (צהר, Gen. 6:16) a word when used in the plural (צהריים) usually means, “noon,” or “midday.” Says Rashi: “Some say [this צהר was] a window; others say [it was] a precious stone that gave light to them.”2 It’s only later in the text that the usual word for window (חלון, Gen. 8:6) is used to describe the opening. Rabbi Sara and Dr. Michael Paasche-Orlow posit: “The window – where the dove returns with an olive branch – is about hope and connection. The window is escape . . . The window is a possibility of change – of redemption.”3

In September and October of 2017, baseball became that window in the ark.

Following Harvey, the Astros became a symbol of hope in a drowning city. The Rays generously offered the Astros Tropicana Field for their first homestand after the hurricane, but the ‘Stros played only three games there before Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner asked the team to come back home to help the city get back to normal. The Astros started wearing a patch on their uniforms that would remain a fixture through the postseason: the logo, a capital H with a star inside, with the word “strong” underneath. The word was an homage to the “Boston Strong” slogan adopted by the city after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing — a slogan invoked by the Red Sox when they won the World Series later that fall. As I wrote about this spring over on Omertime, in the past two decades baseball has more than once played a kind of restorative role in the life of a city.

And that hope is not just a possibility on the ark, it’s an imperative. Avivah Zornberg writes about Noah’s role as “life sustainer” on the ark — making it to the other side of the 40 days of rain is not a matter of mere survival. Noah’s attentiveness to the animals under his care is evidence of the righteousness (איש צדיק, Gen. 6:9) that the text offers as a reason for Noah being spared the fate of the rest of humankind. “In another midrash (Tanhuma 5),” she notes, “Noah as tzaddik is defined specifically by his ‘feeding the creatures of God.’ To be a righteous man is to care for and provide the needs of all creatures, like God [God]self.”4 (I would argue that to the extent that Noah’s righteousness is demonstrated by his care of the animals in the ark, it is actually in marked contrast to Gd’s disregard of the humans abandoned to the deluge. In the ark, Noah is in fact doing what Gd has declined to do. But let’s say here that Noah is acting aspirationally Gd-like.)

Zornberg quotes Emmanuel Levinas in elevating the fulfillment of needs as “a matter of joy and affirmation of life.” “Nourishment as a means of invigoration is the transmutation of the other into the same, which is in the essence of enjoyment: an energy that is other, recognized as other . . . becomes, in enjoyment, my own energy, my strength, me. All enjoyment is in this sense alimentation . . .”5

Through the story of Noah, the Torah emphasizes for us the importance, even at the darkest hour, of experiencing nourishment, of all kinds. It is a righteous act to seek such enjoyment for oneself and for others.

The Astros winning the World Series in 2017 (the asterisk had not yet been hung on the title) did not repair homes. The third Red Sox championship in 2013 did not heal injuries. Mike Piazza’s go-ahead homer in New York City in 2001 did not mitigate death. But baseball did become — and can always be — that window of hope and that source of gratification with which Gd blesses us even in the worst of times.

1. Michael Baumann, “Hurricane Harvey, the Houston Astros, and Home,” in The Ringer.
2. Rashi on Gen. 6:16, trans. Rabbi Abraham Ben Isaiah and Rabbi Benjamin Sharfman, The Pentateuch and Rashi’s Commentary (S. S. & R. Publishing Compnay, Inc.: Brooklyn, N.Y.,1949), p. 60.
3. “Be the Window: A D’var Torah for Parshat Noach by Rabbi Sara and Dr. Michael Paasche-Orlow,” T’ruah’s Torah 20/20.
4. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, Genesis: The Beginning of Desire (The Jewish Publication Society: Philadelphia, 1995), p. 60.
5. Zornberg, p. 61.

bereshit: in the big-inning

I started thinking about this project during the Omer, when I had such a positive experience writing about baseball every day over on Omertime. I wondered whether I could write regularly about baseball and Torah even after Shavuot. Then I moved to a new city at the end of May.

I didn’t pick it up again until this summer when the truncated 2020 MLB season was announced. But then I started a new job at the beginning of July.

So here am I now, finally beginning as the season winds to a close. As I write, the Astros are in the ALCS, down in the series 3-2, one game from elimination (for the third time). But the timing makes sense in the cycle of Torah, as we start reading this Shabbat from the beginning, the book of Genesis and parshat Bereshit. My goal for the next year, at least, is to write about my favorite sport and parshat hashavua.

How do we know that Gd is a baseball fan? Because the Torah starts, “In the big-inning.”

The parshah begins with the grandest and yet simplest of cosmologies: The iconic King James translation renders, “In the beginning, Gd created heaven and earth.” Rashi, however, complicates the seemingly straightforward verse with the very first word, from which the parshah gets its name, bereshit. The word is technically a smichut, a construct form of two nouns. Properly, the verse reads, “In the beginning of Gd’s creation of the heavens and the earth . . .” The account is not necessarily sequential, Rashi argues: Among other reasons, the water in verse 2 has no provenance! Thus, “you must [admit] that scripture does not teach us anything about the order of the earlier or later [acts of creation].”1

But the account of creation, with its repetitive language and clear rhythm (“there was evening, and there was morning, the nth day”) certainly intends to be understood as linear. Thus Avivah Zornberg writes: “There is a tension between the benevolent clarity and power of the narrative and and the acknowledgement of mystery that inheres in the very first word and that develops as the implications of the beginning are realized.”2

Ramban departs in some ways from Rashi in his interpretation of the creation account. He meticulously discusses each development from the smallest beginning moment; his analysis is a reminder that small acts transform — and indeed create — the world. As Nina Caputo argues, he also sees in the creation account “a real physical embodiment of history, of the divine plan. The crucial element in Nahmanides’ view of text and history was the steadfast belief that time itself has a purpose, namely to provide a qualitative and quantitative rhythm to the generations of human life.”3

Ramban notes that the verb bara, “[Gd] created,” appears in the creation account at the very beginning in Gen. 1:1 and then again at the close in Gen. 2:3, and in between many other verbs in the account denote Gd’s actions (a’sah, vayomer, vayikra, vayavdel, etc.). “According to Nahmanides, this indicated that the only true act of creation out of nothingness occurred at the first moment of time when God created the primordial matter of the heavens and the earth; the rest of creation was thus a process of shaping and making forms and matter . . .”4 In other words, there is a definitive beginning and ending, and the rest is details.

I am reminded of the definitive opening and closing of a game, and the rhythm of innings (“there was the top, and there was the bottom, the nth inning”). That order seems immutable, as do the 27 outs that a team has to get to secure a W. It’s all very systematized, full of details to be catalogued and analyzed for what they prove and presage.

It’s in baseball that Rashi and Ramban converge: Each small act is transformative, and stuff comes out of nowhere. It matters whether George Springer hits a lead-off home run in the first inning, and Golden Glover Jose Altuve can short-hop a routine two-out ground-ball — allowing a three-run home run, the difference in a later loss. Does Carlos Correa smash a walk-off HR because he had already gone 0-3, or despite going 0-3?

In the end, baseball is often magic. Says Bronistaw Malinowski: “We find magic wherever the elements of chance and accident, and the emotional play between hope and fear have a wide and extensive range. We do not find magic wherever the pursuit is certain, reliable, and well under the control of rational methods.”5 And maybe it’s that magic that baseball shares with creation.

According to the midrash, “Gd built worlds and destroyed them.”6 As much as the narrative in parshat Bereshit makes it seem like what Gd accomplishes is “certain, reliable, and . . . rational,” the rabbis imagine Gd in that moment as much at the mercy of chance as any us. Gd creates, Gd observes, Gd is dissatisfied, Gd tries again. One might say that Gd needs several ABs to knock it out of the park.

1. Rashi on Gen. 1:1, trans. Rabbi Abraham Ben Isaiah and Rabbi Benjamin Sharfman, The Pentateuch and Rashi’s Commentary (S. S. & R. Publishing Compnay, Inc.: Brooklyn, N.Y.,1949), p. 3.
2. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, Genesis: The Beginning of Desire (The Jewish Publication Society: Philadelphia, 1995), p. 4.
3. Nina Caputo, “‘In the Beginning…’: Typology, History, and the Unfolding Meaning of Creation in Nahmanides’ Exegesis,” in Jewish Social Studies (Autumn, 1999, New Series, Vol. 6, No. 1), p. 56.
4. Caputo, “‘In the Beginning . . .,'” p. 59.
5. George Gmelch, “Baseball Magic,” in TRANS-ACTION (June 1971), p. 39.
6. Bereshit Rabbah 3:7, trans. Sefaria.

Baseballer Rebbe

Between Pesach and Shavuot, I counted the Omer via sports with two other rabbinic colleagues over on Omertime. They covered baseball and hockey, and I dived into baseball. For 49 days, I featured players according to jersey number, making the case for why each one best represented the sefirot associated with each day.

The timing was perfect: Baseball was suspended, I was living in the epicenter of a global pandemic, and my religious and spiritual practice had become utterly solitary.

For seven weeks, my daily Omertime post kept grounded me in time and in space as I began to question both from my one-bedroom apartment in Washington Heights. Days in front of the computer answering email and joining Zoom rooms had begun to be almost indistinguishable, and my apartment, with its limited view of mostly just other buildings, had become my whole world. The writing and counting connected me to the blog’s two co-authors, to a small but loyal fanbase (Hi, Justin! Hi, Jeff!), and to Jewish time and tradition.

The project also, perhaps obviously, connected me back to baseball. I hadn’t given up on the sport entirely, but the revelations in December 2019 about the Astros’ cheating (electronically stealing signs) during the 2017 season, when they won the World Series for the first time in franchise history, devastated me. What had been one of the greatest moments of my life had become a source of anger and bitterness. By mid-January, I had draped black cloth over my World Series poster hanging in my hall, hiding the faces of Carlos Correa, José Altuve, and Alex Bregman crowded around the team’s trophy. (Yes, it was a little dramatic.) I gathered all of my Astros paraphernalia and put it away in a closet. I decided that I was going sit out the 2020 season. I couldn’t see a way to forgiving my team for its betrayal without more time, and I couldn’t imagine just watching the game as usual. But I didn’t think then that I would be bringing everyone else along with me in not watching.

The total of my Astros paraphernalia includes: eight t-shirts; three hats; two magnets; two rally towels (from the 2019 ALDS and ALCS); two rings (2017 WS and 2004 ALCS); two jerseys, one signed by Altuve; one pair of earrings; a duplicate of the commemorative brick outside Minute Maid Park (“A Lifelong Fan’s Dream Come True!”); one headband; one 2017 WS commemorative lighter; and three beer glasses, a coffee mug, a signed Altuve bat, and a stuffed narwhal (yeah, I don’t know).

I’ve always joked that I have two religions, Judaism and baseball, and looking at them in conversation over those seven weeks made me consider more closely how I engage with each. I’ve long known that struggle is a fundamental part of my practice of Judaism, as befits the people called after the name given to our ancestor after wrestling with an angel. Simply put, Jewish tradition and community sometimes enrage and wound me. But I’ve made a commitment to both, and daily I do the work to live out that commitment. Baseball has always been a simpler pleasure — a source of pure joy, a place of effortless transcendence. During the Omertime project, I realized that if I took the metaphor seriously, then baseball was also owed my struggle.

In an incredible moment of synchronicity, after I clicked the “Publish” button for Day 49’s post on the Omertime blog before dawn on erev Shavuot, I left New York City for Durham (and a new job). It’s been easier to stay grounded here in North Carolina, and a daily post isn’t practicable anyway — but I decided I wanted to continue exploring the torah of baseball. And now baseball is back! Since the literal Torah is one of my favorite things about Judaism, I plan to write a weekly post connecting parshat hashavua with my favorite sport.

I’m envisioning this project broadly: I may write about my personal history with baseball, what is happening in the league now, a particular player, a particular game. If you have ideas or resources, send them my way. In the meantime, let’s . . . play ball!