Measuring Good: Sabermetrics and Spiritual Insight (originally published online in eJewish Philanthropy)

This article originally appeared in E-Jewish Philanthropy here.

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I’ll start with a story: in the 1970s, while working as a night shift security guard, Bill James developed an alternative set of stats for baseball called Sabermetrics – an unorthodox analytical model worthy of Nate Silver. For many years, James’ ideas were only known to a tiny group of extreme baseball junkies. The story of how Sabermetrics was finally embraced by a major league team’s general manager, Billy Beane, is wonderfully told in Michael Lewis’ 2003 bestseller, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game and the 2011 movie it inspired.

Beane’s dilemma was that the team he was responsible for building, the Oakland A’s, didn’t have the money to compete for the free agents who were the best players. Beane was a Bill James fan with a small budget and nothing to lose. He concluded that if James’ stats were actually better at predicting success than the traditionally used stats, then maybe he could build a winning team by acquiring overlooked players that traditional scouts would miss – players whose Sabermetric stats were cream of the crop. He did, and the A’s went on to become the winningest team in baseball for a good stretch of years.

Finally, there’s Theo Epstein, who’s in the sports headlines these days. He’s the Sabermetrics whiz kid who applied James’ model to the Boston Red Sox, finally ending their long championship drought. He’s spent the last five years doing the same with the World Series Champion Chicago Cubs.

So what’s spiritual about all this? I promise, we’ll get there, but stay with me a bit longer.

Continue reading “Measuring Good: Sabermetrics and Spiritual Insight (originally published online in eJewish Philanthropy)”

D’var Torah – Nitzavim-Vayelekh (5770/2010)

D’var Torah – Nitzavim/Vayelech 5770

Rabbi Maurice Harris – Temple Beth Israel – Eugene, OR

Shabbat shalom to everyone on this, the last Shabbat before the Jewish New Year of 5771 begins. I hope to see all of you this Wednesday night, Thursday morning, Thursday night and Friday morning for Rosh Hashanah services, and then again Friday night and Saturday morning for Shabbat Shuvah services. It’s a lot of davenning, a lot of togetherness, and I pledge to bring my breath mints if you will too.

In our annual journey through the Torah, we’ve gotten very close to the end of the scroll. This week we’ve arrived at the double Torah portion known as Nitzavim/Vayelech. It begins with well-known words, spoken by Moses to the Israelites: atem nitzavim kool-chem ha-yom leefnay adonay. One translation reads: “You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal One your God.”

It’s a moment in which Moses tells the Hebrews that they are about to enter into a covenant with God and in the fullest sense, become a nation bonded with God. There are several moments of covenant between God and Israel in Torah, and this one stands prominently alongside the pact made between God and the people earlier in the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Now, the Israelites are poised to enter the Promised Land in just a matter of days or weeks, though, sadly, Moses won’t be making that journey with them. But for now, Moses informs them that they are about to ratify, once again, their sacred agreement, their eternal pact with God, as they get ready to transform from a wandering tribe of Hebrews to a nation within a land.

Moses goes on to remind the Israelites that if they keep the covenant they will create a just and prosperous society, and enjoy peace with their neighbors. If they violate the covenant, however, there will be sad and painful consequences. Ultimately, the land will spit them out, and they will find themselves in exile. Their beloved promised land will fall into ruin and destruction on such a scale that neighboring nations will pity them.

We read these words with dramatic irony. As readers we know that not one but two bitter and catastrophic exiles await the Israelites in the centuries after Moses’s life. After warning the Israelites that exile will be the cost of breaking the covenant, Moses tries to offer them hope should they ever find themselves in exile in the future. Here’s some of what he says:

When all these things happen to you [meaning when you do inevitably violate this covenant and find yourselves exiled from your land] … should you take [all that I’ve said] to heart amidst the various nations to which the Eternal your God has banished you, and should you then return to the Eternal your God, and you and your children heed God’s command with all your heart and spiritthen the Eternal your God will restore your fortunes and take you back in motherly-love. God will bring you together again from all the peoples where the Eternal your God has scattered you. Even if your outcasts are at the ends of the sky, from there the Eternal your God will gather you, from there God will fetch you. And the Eternal your God will bring you to the land that your ancestors possessed, and you will possess it; and God will make you more numerous than your ancestors were.

If we stop and look at this passage closely, we start to see how extraordinary it is. Here is Moses, giving his final speeches to a people he knows is deeply flawed, yet full of promise.

Continue reading “D’var Torah – Nitzavim-Vayelekh (5770/2010)”

Parashat Nitzavim – the Teshuvah tie-in in the text

There are several echoes of the High Holy Days in this Torah portion that is one of the last ones we read before the Jewish New Year arrives. This is the season of teshuvah, which is built from the Hebrew root “shuv.”

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Rabbi Alan Lew of blessed memory

The late Rabbi Alan Lew, z’l, in his book This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation, points out that in one passage of this week’s Torah portion, words with the Hebrew root “shuv” appear 7 times, providing a parallel text that urges us over and over, shuv, shuv, shuv. Return, return, return to the goodness inside, to the source of your spirit, to the part of you that represents the best within you – it’s there, inside, waiting for you to return to it. Here’s the passage in Hebrew and with English translation, with each instance of the word shuv / return highlighted.

Deuteronomy 30: 1 – 10                           Parashat Nitzavim

א  וְהָיָה כִי-יָבֹאוּ עָלֶיךָ כָּל-הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, הַבְּרָכָה וְהַקְּלָלָה, אֲשֶׁר נָתַתִּי, לְפָנֶיךָ; וַהֲשֵׁבֹתָ, אֶל-לְבָבֶךָ, בְּכָל-הַגּוֹיִם, אֲשֶׁר הִדִּיחֲךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ שָׁמָּה. 1 And it shall come to pass, when all these things have come upon you, the blessings and the curses that I have set before you, and they you will take them [ha-shev-ota] to heart, among the nations to whom the Eternal your God has driven you,
ב  וְשַׁבְתָּ עַד-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וְשָׁמַעְתָּ בְקֹלוֹ, כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר-אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ, הַיּוֹם:  אַתָּה וּבָנֶיךָ, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשֶׁךָ. 2 and you will return [v’shav-ta] to the Eternal and listen to God’s voice, according to all that I command you today, you and your children, with all your heart and with all your being,
ג  וְשָׁב יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶת-שְׁבוּתְךָ, וְרִחֲמֶךָ; וְשָׁב, וְקִבֶּצְךָ מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים, אֲשֶׁר הֱפִיצְךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, שָׁמָּה. 3 then the Eternal your God will return [v’shav] you from your captivity, and have compassion on you and turn [v’shav] and gather you in from all the nations where you have been scattered.
ד  אִם-יִהְיֶה נִדַּחֲךָ, בִּקְצֵה הַשָּׁמָיִם–מִשָּׁם, יְקַבֶּצְךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וּמִשָּׁם, יִקָּחֶךָ. 4 If you be thrust-away to the ends of the heavens, from there the Eternal your God will collect you, from there God will take you
ה  וֶהֱבִיאֲךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר-יָרְשׁוּ אֲבֹתֶיךָ–וִירִשְׁתָּהּ; וְהֵיטִבְךָ וְהִרְבְּךָ, מֵאֲבֹתֶיךָ. 5 and the Eternal your God will bring you to the land that your ancestors possessed, and you will possess it.   God will do well by you and make you many-more than your ancestors.
ו  וּמָל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶת-לְבָבְךָ, וְאֶת-לְבַב זַרְעֶךָ:  לְאַהֲבָה אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁךָ–לְמַעַן חַיֶּיךָ. 6 And God will circumcise the foreskin of your heart and the heart of your offspring, to love the Eternal with all your heart and with all your being, in order that you may live.
ז  וְנָתַן יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֵת כָּל-הָאָלוֹת הָאֵלֶּה, עַל-אֹיְבֶיךָ וְעַל-שֹׂנְאֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר רְדָפוּךָ. 7 And the Eternal your God will place all those threats upon your enemies and on those that hate you, that pursue you,
ח  וְאַתָּה תָשׁוּב, וְשָׁמַעְתָּ בְּקוֹל יְהוָה; וְעָשִׂיתָ, אֶת-כָּל-מִצְו‍ֹתָיו, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ, הַיּוֹם. 8 But you, if you return [ta-shuv] and listen to the voice of the Eternal and observe all God’s commandments that I command you today,
ט  וְהוֹתִירְךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכֹל מַעֲשֵׂה יָדֶךָ, בִּפְרִי בִטְנְךָ וּבִפְרִי בְהֶמְתְּךָ וּבִפְרִי אַדְמָתְךָ–לְטֹבָה:  כִּי יָשׁוּב יְהוָה, לָשׂוּשׂ עָלֶיךָ לְטוֹב, כַּאֲשֶׁר-שָׂשׂ, עַל-אֲבֹתֶיךָ. 9 then the Eternal your God will make you excel in all the doings of your hands, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your animals, and in the fruit of your soil, for well-being, indeed, the Eternal will return [ya-shuv] to delighting in you, for well-being, as God delighted in your ancestors –
י  כִּי תִשְׁמַע, בְּקוֹל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לִשְׁמֹר מִצְו‍ֹתָיו וְחֻקֹּתָיו, הַכְּתוּבָה בְּסֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה הַזֶּה:  כִּי תָשׁוּב אֶל-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשֶׁךָ.  {ס} 10 if you listen to the voice of the Eternal your God, by keeping God’s commandments and God’s laws – what is written in this document of instruction – if you return [ta-shuv] to the Eternal your God with all your heart and with all your being.