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Life Lessons from Bill, Sean, Kobe and the Children of Israel (Yom Kippur/Yiskor 5780 – 10/09/19)

Rabbi Neil Schuman

Life Lessons from Bill, Sean, Kobe and the Children of Israel
It was the fall of 1986 and Boston was hoping to defeat the Mets and win the World Series for the first time since 1918.
The Red Sox are up three games to two. It’s the bottom of the tenth inning at Shea Stadium in New York, and the Mets are down 5 to 3. There are two outs and nobody’s on base. One more out and the Red Sox annul the curse of the Babe and win the series.
The Mets rally and hit three singles in a row. One runner scores, and now they have runners on first and third. Mookie Wilson, the centerfielder, comes to the plate facing Bob Stanley, the relief pitcher for the Red Sox.
Stanley throws the first ball high, and then he pitches the second ball wide. Unbelievably, he throws a wild pitch that gets by the catcher, and by the time anyone gets to the ball, the man on third scores. Tie game.
Stanley pitches another ball, and this time Wilson hits it far–but foul. He pitches again and Wilson hits it again—far but foul.
So the count is 3 and 2, and everyone knows that the next pitch could decide the ball game.
With a runner on second base, Wilson swings. It’ a slow bouncer up the first baseline. It appears to be an easy out. All the first baseman has to do is scoop up the ball, step on first base, and the inning is over. The Red Sox would then have another chance in the eleventh to win the game and the series.
But it was not to be. The first baseman, one of the best in the game, bends down to field the ball, but somehow the ball diverts from his glove, goes through his legs and rolls into the outfield. The man on second runs home, scoring the winning run and the game is over.
Met fans all over the world are ecstatic; we can’t believe our good fortune. With one out left, we go from agony to exaltation. We knew then that we were going to win the series, and we did so the next day.
Who was that first baseman that made it all possible? Bill Buckner, of course.
Bill Buckner died earlier this year.
I consider his error one of the great tragedies in modern sports.
Buckner was a batting champion, an all-star, an American League MVP, a career .289 hitter who logged 2,715 hits, yet he is most famous, or maybe better stated, infamous, for the one ball that passed through his legs.
The next year the Boston fans refused to forgive him, and whenever he came onto the field at Fenway Park, the fans booed him.
Eventually, the Red Sox had to trade him, so he goes to the California Angels. After a year there, the Angels traded him to the Kansas City Royals. But wherever he went, the fans jeered and heckled him. They never let him forget that one error that changed his whole career.
After a while, he quit baseball and moved to Idaho. He figured there he could escape the ridicule that he received in the big cities, but it did not work out that way. Twice he opened a store that sold fishing supplies, but no one would buy from him, so both of these stores went bankrupt. And then his body gave out. He contracted a rare disease that left him unable to walk, and he spent most of the rest of his life in the hospital or in a wheelchair.
It sounds worse than the tragedy of King Lear. One mistake, one error, and a whole life unravels.
Eventually, he made peace with his situation.
A few days before he died, a reporter from the Boston Globe interviewed him in the hospital room where he lay—unable to move, unable to walk, and barely able to talk. The reporter asked him whether that one error that he made still weighed heavily on his mind after all these years or not.
Bill answered as follows:
“I guess somebody in my shoes could probably say that life sucks. But I choose to believe that it is not so. I choose to believe that life is good. You have a choice when things go bad for you. You can look upon life as unmitigated suffering or you can get over the defeats that are a part of every person’s life and go on. I am not the only one who has had things go wrong in his life. It happens to everybody at some time in his or her life. Your choice is whether to wallow in self-pity when it happens or whether to get up, dust off your pants, and go on with your life. Nothing else matters but what you choose to do after life knocks you down.”
I must tell you that I find this statement very moving and powerful. It shows you what acceptance and faith can overcome; but I also find it very confusing.
For if he came to peace with his lot, then how come his career, livelihood, and health never recovered; it seems like one downward spiral from the time of the error onwards?
I posit that this beautiful statement of faith, acceptance, and strength must have come to him after several years of suffering.
I know it makes no sense to compare one person’s struggles with another’s, for we can never know the hardship each individual faces. Nonetheless, I’d like to contrast his story with two other well-known personalities who experienced significant downfalls.
In 2016, Kobe Bryant retired from basketball. What’s he remembered for?
Being the “Black Mamba,” someone impossible to guard.
For scoring 81 points in a game, the second-highest tally after Wilt Chamberlain. For winning 5 NBA World Championships, with and without Shaq.
Oh, we also remember that nasty case of infidelity and sexual assault with the hotel employee in 2003.
But that didn’t cause the end of his career or his marriage.
After the charges were made public, Kobe organized a press conference. He claimed the incident was consensual and not assault, but admitted his guilt in committing adultery.
To apologize to his wife, he went to Tiffany’s and purchased for her a four million-dollar, eight-carat, purple diamond ring!
In fact, one of the positive benefits of Kobe’s admission of guilt is that Masters and Johnson discovered that in the upcoming year fewer men committed adultery because they couldn’t afford it!
That whole year, Kobe received endless scorn and derision from the fans and the media, but he kept his performance on the court at a high level and laid low when it came to dealing with the public. He weathered the storm.
Kobe prevented what could have been a career and marriage-destroying act because of his admittance of guilt and his commitment to performance at a high level.
Let’s talk about another person who suffered tremendous embarrassment.
Possibly the most critiqued White House Press Secretary of all time is Sean Spicer, but lately, it’s really hard to know! From clearly not being able to analyze simple pictures of inauguration attendance to showing his ignorance about the Holocaust, Spicer was the butt of endless jokes. I still miss all those excellent SNL parodies featuring Melissa McCarthy and the motorized podium.
When he left, I couldn’t imagine him having any future employment possibilities.
But immediately, he started repairing his reputation by being a guest on numerous talk shows, writing a book about his experiences in the White House, and most notably, excelling in “Dancing with the Stars.”
How did Spicer do this? By not taking himself so seriously and admitting the mistakes he made.
In 2008, 22 years after that infamous error, Buckner was invited to Fenway Park to throw out the first pitch at Boston’s home opener. He said “it was as emotional as it could get. I had to forgive the media for what they put me and family through. I’ve done that, and I’m just happy.”
Without judging a man who was clearly ill-treated, I think if there’s one lesson we can learn from the tale of Bill Buckner, it’s not to wait 22 years.
What did Kobe and Spicer do correctly? They admitted their mistakes right away and worked on rebuilding their reputation.
In truth, that’s the lesson of Yom Kippur. On the 17th of Tammuz, only ninety days after experiencing the miracles of the Exodus, only forty days after we heard G-d speak to us the Ten Commandments, we abandoned our faith in the One and Only. Moses was late in coming down the mountain, we were impetuous and forged the Golden Calf.
When Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai and sees what we’ve done, in disgust he smashes the tablets. He punishes the activists and to show his disapproval, he moves his tent from within the Israelite Camp.
After such a humiliating sin, the Jews are humbled and pray to God for forgiveness. Forty days after their downfall, their prayers are accepted and G-d tells Moses to procure new tablets and come back up to Mt. Sinai.
On the Tenth of Tishrei, eighty days after the breaking of the Tablets, Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai with two whole tablets in his hands. What we ruined the first time with the worshiping of the Golden Calf, we were able to repair.
That day, the tenth of Tishrei became consecrated as Yom Kippur, a day of forgiveness for our people on an annual basis.
The lesson: if you make a mistake, admit it immediately, ask for forgiveness, and move on.
Although I was thrilled the Mets won the World Series, I’m sorry it came at the expense of the career and life of one of the best first basemen in the business. I would never want to face Buckner’s challenges, and I’m heartened that he finally came to peace with his lot in life. That itself is an invaluable life lesson for all of us.
But if we are faced with errors, mistakes that have serious repercussions, let’s take Kobe’s, Sean’s, and the Children of Israel’s paths. Let’s be immediately humbled, admit our guilt and seek to improve ourselves. The lesson from all of them is that we can all start over, find forgiveness and reach new heights.
As we begin Yizkor, I want to thank Bill Buckner for his contributions to baseball and for the spiritual lessons we have learned from him; may his soul continue to find greater peace. Acceptance, peace, faith, forgiveness, and recovery are available to those even in the most difficult situations; we just need to start the reparation process right away.
Shana Tova

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