Rabbi Charles P. Sherman
The Hebrew month of Elul began this past Tuesday evening. Elul is that special 29-day period of preparation for the Holydays. This means, friends, that our New Year is less than four weeks away. Our tradition calls upon us to use this month of Elul to prepare ourselves so that 5775 can truly be a New Year for each of us. Let’s begin by considering some questions relating to the Holydays.
If I were to ask which baseball player you think of as you contemplate our Holydays, I bet I know what most of you would say. If you are a certain age, you would reply – Hank Greenberg. If you are of a slightly younger generation, you would respond Sandy Koufax.
So what do these two baseball players have in common, and what did they do that brings them to mind when we start thinking about the Holydays and the new year? Those answers are easy – they both won fame and they both won eternal gratitude from Jews by choosing not to play ball on Yom Kippur. For a generation of Jews which was struggling to find the balance between being Jews and being Americans, Greenberg and Koufax became role models by staying away from the baseball field on our holiest day of the year.
The truth is that neither of those baseball greats was particularly pious. If I remember correctly, neither one of them spent the entire day in the synagogue. But, just the same, the very fact that they chose not to play on Yom Kippur made them genuine American Jewish heroes, and they are remembered for this ever since. I have no doubt that many, many Jews have chosen not to work on our Holydays because of Greenberg and Koufax’s example. So I hail them and bless them for what they did.
But what I would like to propose this evening is that there is another baseball player who can serve as an even better role model then Greenberg or Koufax for what our High Holydays are all about. Since I don’t think that any of you will guess who I have in mind – I’ll just tell you.
My vote for the baseball player who can teach us the most about what our Holydays are about goes to that Oklahoma native, Mickey Mantle. Yes, I know and you know that Mickey Mantle was not Jewish. Yet I would like to suggest this evening that we can learn some valuable lessons about our Holydays from the example of Mickey Mantle, and that these lessons are good reminders of what we are supposed to be doing this month of Elul.
I read an article by a psychiatrist, Isaac Steven Herschkopf, who is both in private practice and also a member of the faculty at the NYU Medical School. Dr. Herschkopf grew up in Washington Heights on 161st Street, which is the same street that Yankee Stadium, of blessed memory, was located on. He has been a devoted baseball fan from childhood on, and Mickey Mantle was one of his great heroes as a child. Mantle’s picture was the only one young Herschkopf put on the wall of his room.
Back in the 1980s, when Dr. Herschkopf was visiting Los Angeles, a rare opportunity presented itself. His host told him that Mickey Mantle was sitting by himself in the bar of his hotel and, if Herschkopf was willing to pay for his drinks, he could probably have him to himself for as long as he wanted.
Dr. Herschkopf says his heart was pounding with excitement; he was going to meet his childhood hero in person. When he went into the bar and saw him, he was a little bit disappointed. The man sitting at the bar was clearly Mickey Mantle, but he certainly did not look very heroic at all. Herschkopf says that Mantle did not welcome his company, but also did not refuse it. In fact, until Herschkopf offered to pay for his drinks, Mantle did not seem to even notice that he was there.
When he finally got his idol’s attention, he tried to ingratiate himself. Herschkopf recounted some of his hero’s famous plays; he thought that Mantle would be impressed by how much the doctor had remembered about his exploits. But Mantle wasn’t impressed; he didn’t seem to remember or care about all those fabulous plays being recounted about his career. The Herschkopf stories evidently made no impression upon Mantle.
The doctor understood why. Drinking marathons follow predictable patterns. At first, the rising blood alcohol levels create a sense of euphoria. Then, as the drinking goes on, the euphoria gives way to resentment and recriminations. The doctor had arrived late in Mantle’s drinking binge, and that was why he was getting such a cold reception.
Mantle was not interested in his visitor’s adulation; he only wanted to complain. He did not have a good word to say about anyone – including himself, yeah, especially himself. With each drink, Mantle grew increasingly morose and unintelligible, and his host grew increasingly disillusioned. By the time the evening was over, the good doctor had lost his hero.
When he came home, he took down the picture of Mickey Mantle, which had been on his bedroom wall all through his teenage years, and threw it away. Why save the picture of a drunken bum!
Dr. Herschkopf met Mickey Mantle a second time, in 1989. He found that his ex-hero had gone downhill since they last met. He was wearing sunglasses – in the middle of the day, indoors – so that his bloodshot eyes would not be visible to anyone who saw him. He did not remember ever having met the doctor but, when told that Herschkopf was a psychiatrist, Mantle playfully rested his head on the doctor’s shoulder as if to say “can you help me, doc?”. Evidently, this time the doctor had arrived early in Mantle’s drinking binge – the blood alcohol level was still high and his disposition was still manic.
Later on, the doctor gave Mickey Mantle a free diagnosis. Mantle told him of a recurring dream he had been having ever since he retired. In this dream, he was desperately trying to get into a ballpark during a game, but the gates were locked. No matter how hard he tried, he could not get in.
Psychiatrist Herschkopf says that the latent content of this dream intrigued him. He wondered if the gates that Mantle felt he could not enter were, in fact, the Pearly Gates. He wondered if the burden that Mickey Mantle had to carry was that he could never again be Mickey Mantle, or whether the burden that he had to carry was that he could never stop being Mickey Mantle.
And yet he did, and that is why I speak about Mickey Mantle tonight, as an Elul model for all of us. There is a famous line of F. Scott Fitzgerald which says: “There are no second acts in American lives.”
Well, Mickey Mantle proved – and Judaism insists – that F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong. Mantle not only had a second act, a very sad one, but he also had a third act as well. And it is Mantle’s third act which makes him our model for the month of Elul.
Act I was Mantle’s legendary baseball career, which lasted for chai – 18 years. That act was his glory time, the period when he won the hearts of Americans by his incredible prowess as a hitter and centerfielder.
Act II was the double chai – 36 years of his retirement. Those were the years when he lost the hearts of so many Americans as he degenerated before our eyes. Those were the years when he destroyed his marriage and ruined his family; he turned all four of his sons into alcoholics by his example. Those were the years when Mickey Mantle was nothing but a drunken stumblebum.
Then came Act III. Mantle went into rehab, recovered from his alcoholism, and spent the last years of his life trying to persuade anyone who would listen not to follow his example.
Dr. Herschkopf is not only a psychiatrist; he is also an observant Jew. So he writes that Act III of Mickey Mantle’s life reminds him of the steps in the teshuvah process which Jews are supposed to go through during the weeks leading up to Yom Kippur.
This month of Elul we are preparing for the Asseret Y’may Teshuvah – the Ten Days of Teshuvah. Martin Buber called teshuvah the central concept of Jewish living. Teshuvah is generally translated as “repentance”; it literally means “turning or returning.” To be a Jew means to affirm that the door is never closed, whether it is the Pearly Gates or the door to becoming a better spouse, parent, child, friend, neighbor, employer, employee – a better person. God is calling us: “Come back to Me, My children. You are never that far away. Don’t worry about failure, don’t worry about the mistakes. Face them, admit them, repair them, and then come back home.” Basic to the Jewish Holyday experience is the belief that God waits, God cares, God forgives. There is always a way back; that is teshuvah.
Let me remind you once more of the steps we need to take this month. Step One is Cheshbon Hanefesh – an inventory of our soul; an accounting of our spirit. This month of Elul is a time for introspection and self-evaluation, a look within. It is important to do, and it is difficult to do.
This time of year calls out to Jews – no more excuses, no more defenses, no more denial. Hold that mirror up in front of your spiritual self and say both “Where have I been right on target during this year which is rapidly coming to an end, and where have I missed the mark?”
Step Two is confession – vidui. We have to admit to ourselves, perhaps to others, and surely to God that we have not always been on target. We have to stop rationalizing and admit our own responsibility for what we are doing with our life. That is what Mickey Mantle finally did. Otherwise, there can be no teshuvah, no turnaround.
Step Three is repair or restitution. Our relationship with our friend was broken last year, let’s fix it; let’s make it right.
Some of the hardest words in the English language to say are “I did it,” “I was wrong,” “I am sorry.” This is part of the repair process, as well as of the vidui step. We have to be willing to confront, confess, and then work out a “fix-it-upper”, a way of repairing the damage.
And Step Four is the resolve to change, to improve. “I won’t do it again.” Mickey Mantle surely did that in the last years of his life, as he tried to help people not make the same mistakes he had made. He realized that he could not change without help, so he went into rehab.
We are human, not perfect. We will err, we will fail, but we can change – that is the message of Judaism and the example of Mickey Mantle. He realized that he had done great harm, and he tried to apologize and to make restitution. So he became a teacher to young people on how not to live – based on his own missed marks.
That is why Dr. Herschkopf, and I too, think that Mickey Mantle is a good model for all of us on how to prepare ourselves for the coming New Year. At the end, Mantle grasped what many of us never seem to grasp, which is that saying “I have sinned” or saying “I am sorry” only has meaning when it is accompanied by concrete and specific changes in our behavior. I don’t know whether Mickey Mantle ever went through the Alcoholics Anonymous 12 Step Program or not; but he went through the steps which our Jewish tradition requires of us at this season of the year.
Mickey Mantle died on August 13, 1995. Dr. Herschkopf says that Mantle’s obituary is now on his wall where his picture was when he was a child. He believes that Mickey Mantle ultimately found his way through those Pearly Gates which he dreamed so often that he would not be able to enter.
I share Mantle’s story with you tonight in order to help us prepare for the coming Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe. Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax made us proud and taught us that we could be both Americans and Jews, and for this we owe them much. But Mickey Mantle taught us an even more profound lesson. And even though I am sure he never knew that the steps he took were part of the Jewish tradition, he got them right and did them well.
I hope that each of us can take a long, hard look inside ourselves during these next few weeks. Let’s see what needs straightening, what needs correcting, what needs mending, what needs strengthening. And let’s try our best to tell ourselves the truth and to tell God the truth.
I conclude with the shortest, simplest and – perhaps – most accurate definition of Judaism which I know. It comes from Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk. He was once asked: “What is the essence of Judaism?” And his answer was: “The essence of Judaism is arbiten off zich – working on yourself.”
Elul is here. Let’s get to work on ourselves. May God help us in this most important work, and may Mickey Mantle’s example remind and instruct us. Amen
I am indebted to Rabbi Jack Riemer for much of this message.