A Tale of Two Lakewoods
I recently had the distinct American pleasure of attending a minor league baseball game. Though New York City boasts two major league teams, the greater New York metropolitan area has several minor league ball clubs, teams filled with kids still in their teens, dreaming of one day playing in “The Show.” Often watching these developing players is more exciting than watching their more able, higher-paid counterparts. Not to mention, beer that night cost a dollar.
In the third inning, I turned to one of my friends and marveled at the determination of everyone involved with this game: not only the players, but the coaches, umpires, even the announcers—were all chasing the same, highly unreasonable dream: that someday they would make it to the major leagues.
My friend wasn’t so sure. He postulated that perhaps they were simply there to have fun. So we put the question to one of the trainers, whom we met during a seventh-inning stretch tour of the locker room. “How many of these players still believe they will make it to the majors and how many are just playing for the fun of it?” my friend asked asked.
“All of them,” he replied.
“All of them play for fun?” my friend repeated.
“No. All of them think they can get to the big leagues,” he said. “To a man.”
This genuinely surprised my friend, but not me. To date, fewer than 17,000 people have played in the bigs. That’s 17,000 players in the history of the American and National Leagues, going back well over a century. To put this in perspective, I heard a Yankees announcer say once, if you took every Major Leaguer, alive or dead, and put him in Yankee Stadium, the place would still be two-thirds empty.
Yet, despite those astounding odds, so many continue to push forward, holding on to the belief that somehow they will be among the chosen few. For their efforts, they are paid as little as $750 a month; they earn in one full season what Alex Rodriguez earns in the time it takes him to tie one shoe.
A few miles down the road from the legendary Lakewood yeshiva, resides a single-A ballclub, the lowest rung on the minor league ladder. The Lakewood Blue Claws are one of 246 minor league teams comprising in the neighborhood of five thousand players. Every one of these players was drafted by a major league team and signed to a professional baseball contract. These kids were stars of their college, high school and little league teams. They know how to play ball.
But there are still too many of them. The fact remains that only a few of these minor league players will ever get called up to the big club—even for a day. And of those that eventually do get called up, few will become regulars. And of those who become regulars, few will play for more than a handful of seasons. And of those who do play for several seasons, few will become All-Stars.
Yet, "to a man," every player, since he was a young boy, aspires to be that one All-Star. Every one holds on to that dream.
What should we say about such dreamers? Should we mock them? Should we sit in the stands, sipping on dollar beers, and cheer their efforts, all the while laughing at them in the backs of our heads? How should we respond to this ridiculous scene of an entire ballgame, whose foundation rests on cloud upon cloud of false hope?
To Torah Jews, their behavior should be inspirational. For their dream is a mechayev. Our Sages teach that Rebbi was mechayev—he obligated—the rich, because he was one of the richest men of his generation, and still, despite all of his financial obligations and business commitments, he found the time to become a great Torah scholar.
Likewise, Hillel was mechayev the poor. Despite his impoverishment and constant need to earn a living wage, he still managed to spend his days occupied in Torah.
Minor league ball players are mechayev all of us, regardless of what we do for a living. If they can live in this “field of dreams” so can we. If they can hold upend their lives in the single-minded pursuit of an unlikely result, we can certainly adjust our lives to pursue a result that is guaranteed.
This guarantee is what differentiates us from them. In the words of the Sages, “Anu ameilim veheim ameilim—We toil and they toil." We all work hard at what we do. But unlike baseball players, we are guaranteed results. Just for trying. Torah study does not require us to become great scholars. We succeed with every word we learn. Torah study is not a means to an end but an end in itself.
Torah study is not for the select few (even if only a select few will excel at it). Too often, we push off learning as the realm of the rabbis. Too often we push off studying until we are prepared to sit for an hour or longer. Too often we push off studying on a basic level because we are too tired, too busy, too unmotivated to study in-depth.
Too many of us remain faithful to a practical approach. Our reach does not even approach our grasp. When it comes to Judaism, we become very modest about our abilities. This is tragic because it leaves so much on the table. We ought to take a page from the book of these dreamers, they of the impractical and the unlikely. We ought to imagine that we can become great talmidei chachamim, that we can become great tzadikim, that we can learn more than we currently learn and do more than we currently do. In doing so, unlike the ballplayers, we all become All-Stars.