By Rabbi Jason Bonder
I have been telling anyone who will listen about the wild success of Israel’s national baseball team, which just earned its spot in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
I played Division III baseball at Muhlenberg College and then for the Tel Aviv Lightning in the now defunct Israel Baseball League — Israel’s first and only professional baseball league. So in these discussions about Team Israel with those who know my baseball past, I often get the question, “Rabbi, do you wish you were there playing with them?” I always answer, “Thankfully, no.”
My boyhood dream was to play professional baseball. My talent shone in my Little League years. I was a member and captain of my high school team. Yet slowly but surely, baseball got harder. The people around me were more talented at each level. By the time I was attending showcases in front of college scouts, I no longer stood out. At the tryouts I definitely wanted to play with the standouts. I wished my baseball career could have gone in a different direction.
The recognition that I wasn’t the cream of the crop could have been my prompt to walk away from the game. But I’m glad I didn’t. Had I hung up the spikes, the desire to play at the highest levels would have stayed inside me. Those feelings could have turned into jealousy or bitterness, or just remained as an unending longing to play pro ball.
So instead of stopping, I kept trying to play at the highest levels I could. I played all four years in college, where I had mild success, and in the summers I somehow found my way into the prestigious Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League playing for the Kutztown Rockies. In those summer leagues I didn’t get much playing time, but I got to watch and train with some of the best players I had ever seen.
Getting less playing time was not exactly thrilling, but it gave me the time and perspective I needed to honestly assess my abilities. During those years I learned so much about baseball, but I learned even more about myself. Thanks to donning the same uniform as players who’d go on to greater baseball heights, I knew exactly where I stood in the great pyramid of players with Tee Ball at the base of the pyramid and the Big Leagues at the pinnacle.
During the month of Elul, as we prepare for the High Holidays, many Jews engage in Heshbon HaNefesh — an accounting of the soul. Giving it my all in baseball was the accounting of my baseball soul. It wasn’t always easy, but I’m all the better for it. I still play the game. I still appreciate the game. I revel in watching those who can play it better than I, confident and proud of how far I made it along the arduous journey.
Thanks to my adventures in baseball, and thanks to the friends I made along the way, I am rejoicing for Team Israel on their miraculous road to the Olympics. Watching them puts me in touch with my boyhood dream, and in those moments, I’m so thankful that I accounted for my baseball soul. Thanks to that process, there are no “what ifs” when I watch them, only gratitude for the time I had on the diamond.
That is the power of Heshbon HaNefesh. It can be an uncomfortable process, but it yields gifts that last a lifetime. May these last days before 5780 be a time of assessing our lives and learning exactly who we are. Mazel tov, Team Israel — you gave me, and all of us, one more thing to celebrate as we begin a brand new year.
Rabbi Bonder is associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen.