Call it a quirk in the calendar or a dose of divine inspiration, but each year as Jews turn the page on a spiritual year and complete the annual Torah reading cycle, one baseball team is finishing the final leg of its march to a World Series championship.
It could be argued that in both cases the story always turns out the same. The biblical narrative ends each year with the death of Moses and the Israelites poised to enter the Promised Land, while in baseball, though the winning team changes from year to year, one constant remains: No season shall end with either the Chicago Cubs or the Boston Red Sox on top.
To fully appreciate the longing experienced by fans of these two teams, one need only imagine Moses and the Israelites arriving at the Land of Israel after 40 years in the desert and then deciding to turn back and spend another 45 years meandering. Such is the current fate of the Red Sox and their fans, who have not tasted victory since 1918. Tack on another decade, and now you’re feeling the pain of the Cubs’ faithful.
Suddenly, however, cracks are emerging in baseball’s cosmic order: The Cubs and the Red Sox both have advanced past the first round of the playoffs and are one step away from meeting each other in the World Series. The potential match-up has captured the attention of many baseball fans and even drawn comment from the editorial board of The New York Times. The Gray Lady is so enamored with the idea that the newspaper published an editorial Wednesday calling for a Red Sox victory over the hometown New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series.
“We find it hard to resist the emotional tug and symmetrical possibilities of a series between teams that seem to have been put on the earth to tantalize and then crush their zealous fans,” the editors explained.
Logic would, indeed, seem to dictate that a Cubs-Red Sox series would mean the end of one city’s long wait for a title: Even an earthquake could not derail the Fall Classic in 1989, and the only known plague with the ability to cut short the baseball season — a work stoppage — does not seem to be a possibility this year.
But decades of heartbreak can leave one jaded.
“It’s crossed my mind that the Red Sox and Cubs would meet in the World Series — and both teams would find a way to lose,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, a Red Sox loyalist from Worcester, Mass., and president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Reform movement’s congregational arm.
In truth, however, what’s amazing about Yoffie and his fellow fans in Boston and Chicago is that they actually have managed to maintain a positive perspective, always assuming that this is their year. It is an inexplicable, eternal hope in the face of adversity that parallels the brand of faith demanded by Jewish tradition.
Writing in a different context, the chief rabbi of England, Jonathan Sacks, has noted: “We know that the Jewish journey, the journey to redemption which we see as the human journey, is a journey that is painfully slow. It is full of digressions, setbacks and wrong-turnings. And the eternal metaphor for that is the journey of the Israelites through the wilderness that should have taken a few weeks and instead took forty years — and essentially, and this is the crucial fact — took more than one generation.”
And, if four decades weren’t enough, the Jewish people had to wait nearly two millennia for a country of their own to be re-established. And, for many religious Jews, the waiting for the arrival of the messiah continues. “I can believe in the messiah because I am a Red Sox fan,” Yoffie said. “The faith of a true Red Sox fan remains unshaken. As a Jew, you always remain convinced that the messianic age has yet to come.”
A similar theme was sounded on the other side of the denominational spectrum by Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, a fellow at Yeshiva University and a resident scholar at the Jewish Center, an Orthodox synagogue in Manhattan. While theology divides the two rabbis, they have room to relate when it comes to baseball: Soloveichik, a Chicago native, roots for the Cubs.
“Part and parcel of being a traditional Jew is believing that we will become worthy [of the messiah]. In other words, despite failing in the past, the Jewish people will justify all of our hopes, expectations and dreams,” Soloveichik said. He added that, while no such religious obligation exists to believe in the home team, a good Chicago fan should ideally demonstrate a similar level of optimism “even though the Cubs have failed many, many times in the past, and at times it would seem to have been totally hopeless.”
To back up his assertion about the upbeat mood of his fellow Cubs loyalists, Soloveichik cited two popular slogans among Chicago fans: “You Gotta Believe” and “Everybody’s Entitled to a Bad Century.”
Soloveichik seemed uncertain when asked whether a Cubs’ victory in the World Series might end up transforming zealously loyal Cubs’ fans into an apathetic bunch. “That’s a good question,” Soloveichik said. “If the Cubs do win, will the fans still be as loyal? How will they deal with success?”
With at least two more decades of waiting and several more near-misses under his belt, Yoffie had little patience for such existential angst: “I’ll pay the price,” he said.