For some of us, this has been a rough week in sports. Those of us who love the Yankees have watched as our team lost a playoff series to their arch-rivals, the Boston Red Sox. The colossal collapse of the Yankees, the worst in sports history, and the magnificent, even heroic achievement of the Red Sox, will be remembered for a very long time by anyone even mildly interested in sports.
I grew up in Washington D.C. There was a team called the Washington Senators. They were terrible. They were a losing team, year after year. Every time I turned around, they were losing to the New York Yankees, the team of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Whitey Ford, Clete Boyer, Tony Kubek, Bill Skowron, and so on. I remember all the names. That’s how good they were and how bad it was for me. Washington was first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League. We in Washington were so traumatized by losing to the Yankees all the time that there was a famous Broadway show called Damn Yankees that recalls the pain of being a Senators fan in those years. The Senators were so bad that they had to leave town and become the Minnesota Twins. Then after a while there was a new Washington team, also called the Washington Senators. They were so bad that they had to leave town and become the Texas Rangers.
After this second exile, I was liberated to root for any team that I chose. So I picked the Yankees. By the time my son Joshua came around, I had been a Yankees fan for most of my life. He has grown up rooting for a team that has had stunning success, year after year, like the Yankee teams of my youth. We have gone to many games, including playoff and World Series games. Being raised in Connecticut, his friends were split between the Yankees and the Red Sox. Josh has a T-shirt with the number 1918 on it, recalling the last time the Red Sox won the World Series. He has worn it many, many times, thus torturing all.
The popular idea has been that the Red Sox are cursed because they sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees. It has been considered fate, the order of the universe, that the Red Sox will never win the championship. The curse has been blamed for one Red Sox disaster after another through the years, many of which were connected with someone with the first letter B, as in Babe.
While I don’t know at this minute if the Red Sox will win the World Series this year, I do know that Yankees fans are depressed and Red Sox fans are elated beyond measure.
Which leads me to what I want to say. I sat there in the dark the other night, in my Derek Jeter t-shirt, depressed, frustrated, incredulous. I couldn’t feel my legs. And on TV, they showed the cheering Red Sox fans at a bar, screaming and cheering. And all of a sudden, I was inside them, feeling their joy and excitement. After all of these terrible years, after watching the Yankees win 40 American League pennants and 26 World Series, the whole world had changed.
In the Torah, G-d said to us: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” What does that mean? As silly as this may sound to you, I think I measured up to that verse when I put aside my depression to feel the joy of other people, even though it was at my expense. After all, come on, why should the Yankee fans be the only ones to know that delicious feeling of your team beating its rival? Haven’t we Yankee fans had enough pleasure, year after year? What about those poor Red Sox fans?
Over the years, as a rabbi, I have taken more and more pleasure and joy out of the pleasure and joy of others, and I have suffered more and more at the sufferings as others. I like to think of this as growing up, as realizing that what’s good for me is not the ultimate consideration. If I am only for myself, Hillel said, who am I?
A lot of people I know are way ahead of me. They have taught me what it means to care about others. They are not just happy when something good happens to them; they are happy when something good happens to someone else.
Other people I know are way behind me. When something good happens to others, they are jealous or even angry. They need to grow up.
Another lesson from this week is that there is no such thing as fate. History can predict the probabilities that something will or will not happen, but it does not determine what will happen. There are no curses. Babe Ruth’s ghost does not rule. Judaism does not believe in fate or ghosts or curses. We believe that anyone, even the Boston Red Sox, determine their own future.
Of course, you could say that sports does not matter. You could be right. But sports is a human activity and thus reveals something about human beings.
So as a Yankee fan human being, feel joy for the Red Sox fan human beings. Say mazal tov for being loyal to a team that has had such a tough history. They deserve congratulations.
So when you see a young couple about to be married, feel their joy. When you see a Bar or Bat Mitzvah and their family, feel their joy. Don’t be jealous, be thrilled. The paradox is that by not worrying only about your own happiness and by feeling the happiness of others, you will add joy to your life because you will feel the happiness around you.
Next year, I hope the Yankees destroy the Red Sox. But until then, I will feel joy for the joy of others. To love your neighbor as yourself is to be happy for their happiness.