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)”

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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)”

D’var Torah – Re’eh (5770 / 2010)

D’var Torah – Parashat Re’eh  5770

Rabbi Maurice Harris – Temple Beth Israel – Eugene, OR

Shabbat shalom.  This week’s Torah portion is Re’eh, and in it we continue to listen to Moses’s final review of the laws and statutes that the Israelites are to observe as part of their covenant with the One who redeemed them from slavery in Egypt, the Eternal One.  Moses goes over many different topics in Re’eh, and tomorrow morning Ethan, our bar mitzvah, will focus on an area having to do with kashrut, the laws governing how we make eating food a holy act. In another part of this parashah, however, Moses gives an overview of the rituals involved in the celebration of the great festivals of the people of Israel.  The three pilgrimage festivals – Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot, get special attention. Tomorrow morning, when Ethan chants the maftir, or last few verses of the portion, he’ll be chanting words that describe some of the things we’re supposed to do on Sukkot. Listen to what the text says:

After the ingathering from your threshing floor and your vat, you shall hold the Feast of Booths, chag ha-sukkot, for seven days.  You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow in your communities.  You shall hold a festival for the Eternal you God seven days, in the place that the Eternal will choose; for the Eternal your God will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy.

You might have noticed the emphasis on happiness and joy in this passage.  There’s a key word that recurs in the Torah’s discussion of sukkot, and that word is sameach, or grammatical variations on it.  Sameach is the word for happiness or joy, and in fact one of the various names for the holiday of Sukkot is Zman Simchateynu, or “Season of our Joy.”  In the passage I just quoted above, the Hebrew root sameach comes up twice.  We hear it first with the words “you shall rejoice in your festival” – v’samachta is the Hebrew for “you shall rejoice.”  Then, towards the end of the passage, it says “ you shall have nothing but joy.”  The Hebrew reads, v’hayitta ach sameach.

Eric Mendelsohn, a past President of Congregation Darchei Noam, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Toronto, writes the following:

The grandchildren of the great medieval Jewish commentator Rashi, building on his commentary, note that the word “Simcha” … – “Be happy !” occurs three times in the description of Sukkot (and with the extra command “Ach Sameach” – “[really] be happy”, it is almost like a parents’ reminder — “Have a good time and by the way, have a good time.”) On the other hand, [even though this Torah portion also describes the other 2 great pilgrimage festivals, the word]  “Simcha” is mentioned only once for Shavuot, and not at all with regard to Pesach.

In a d’var Torah he gave at his synagogue, he asks why this might be.  Here’s some of what he writes:

The agricultural basis of these holidays provides a simple explanation. Passover is the time of lambing and the sign of spring, but there is great apprehension about the crops to come. The winter wheat is in but the barley and vegetables will take seven more weeks. At Shavuot – the barley is in and one can breathe somewhat easier. But Sukkot is the grand Thanksgiving feast, at which rich and poor alike are assured enough sustenance. Judaism teaches that one has the right to enjoy the material benefits of this world and we are enjoined to rejoice in having them.

The Rabbinic linking of the three festivals to history also provides a reason for the differing amounts of required happiness. At Pesach – Egyptian soldiers have been drowned; we cannot rejoice when others are suffering. At Shavuot we can be happy that we have received Torah, but there was the incident of the Golden Calf which mutes our joy. But Sukkot celebrates the Mishkan (the portable Tabernacle of the desert). It provides the wholeness of having a spiritual center that moves with one — and that is cause for unbounded joy. Continue reading “D’var Torah – Re’eh (5770 / 2010)”

Focus on building a strong, enduring progressive majority (there are no shortcuts – part 2)

With the redacted Mueller report about to drop, it’s tempting to get sucked into the news and spin cycles that are sure to follow. I plan not to do that today. But I also plan not to go politically inactive and abandon the field of action to others. I am going to keep doing the activist thing I’ve been doing lately – sending personalized postcards to Democratic voters urging them to vote in various local, state, and special Congressional elections. (https://postcardstovoters.org/)

I am also going to continue using the wonderful online tool, ResistbotScreenshot 2019-04-18 at 08.03.54, to easily write and send letters and faxes to members of Congress demanding that the full, unredacted report be made public, and keeping the pressure on about other important issues.

And I’m going to look for opportunities to keep hammering away at the long term enduring work needed to win local, state, and federal elections for Democrats, by checking on Indivisible’s work in my area and keeping up with a great activist organization in my state, Turn PA Blue.

We can’t count on good luck with news cycles and the unfolding of events. If the eventual contents of the full Mueller report see the light of day, and if those contents actually bring Trump down or decrease his chances of re-election, huzzah – bonus – yay! But we all know that things might play out very differently, justly or not.

Continue reading “Focus on building a strong, enduring progressive majority (there are no shortcuts – part 2)”

The real crisis about the Jewish future

The real crisis about the Jewish future is not how many Jews there will be.

It’s whether or not Judaism does more good than harm in the world. It’s what kinds of people this religion helps raise up.

This is the same moral test that all religions have to face, all the time.

But the rise of nationalist, messianic, Arab-hating, democracy-disdaining Judaism in parts of Israel and, to a lesser extent, in the Diaspora, really has me wondering if we’re failing this basic litmus test.

I’m a rabbi. A rabbi committed to a progressive, non-dogmatic, non-literalist, anti-fundamentalist, humanistically informed approach to Judaism. I believe that progressive, pluralistic, humble, open-minded, open-hearted, risk-taking religious communities of all faiths do more good than harm, by and large. But what I can’t tell anymore is whether my religion writ large – Judaism – as it lives in various forms and ideological configurations in 2019 – is a net plus for humankind. And that makes me feel both sad and motivated to get off my ass and make my best effort to make a difference.

D’var Torah – Chukat/Balak

Chukat-Balak D’var Torah 5769 / July 3, 2009

Rabbi Maurice Harris

This week we’ve come to a double Torah portion, pairing Chukat and Balak, two of the portions that bring us to the final chapters of the Israelites’ forty year saga of journeying through the wilderness.  

The parasha opens with a famously intriguing description of a ritual of purification involving the ashes of a red heifer.  The priests are to take an unblemished red cow and burn it along with cedar wood, hyssop and crimson stuff. The ashes are then gathered up and used to create sacred waters which are sprinkled on individuals who have come in contact with the dead to ritually cleanse them.  

Until now, the book of the Torah we are in – the Book of Numbers – has told us stories that have taken place during the first two years of the Israelites’ exodus from slavery in Egypt.  But now the narrative takes a sudden 38 year jump forward. The generation that witnessed the 10 plagues, that left Egypt, that miraculously crossed the Sea of Reeds on dry land, and that experienced the thundering presence of God at Mount Sinai has died now in the wilderness.  With the exception of just a few elders like Moses, his brother Aaron, and his sister, Miriam, a new generation born in the wilderness has now taken the previous generation’s place. With this 38 year jump, our Torah portion presents us with, in fact, a new nation of Israelites with a new mission.  The previous generation’s mission was escape from slavery and the receiving and incorporating of the laws that God provided the nation at Mount Sinai. This generation’s mission will be to maintain those laws and traditions, and to enter and establish themselves in the Promised Land. So our story presents us with a new generation still led by the previous generation’s elders.

But that changes quickly.  Quickly we learn about the death of Miriam as the people are encamped at Kadesh.  Following her death, Moses and Aaron are faced with a crisis. Here’s how the passage reads in translation: Continue reading “D’var Torah – Chukat/Balak”

D’var Torah – Vayetzey

D’var Torah – Vayetzey 5771 – November 12, 2010

Rabbi Maurice Harris

This week’s Torah portion is called vayetzey, and it is found in the book of breisheet, or Genesis in English.  Our story begins with a young Jacob fleeing the wrath of his brother, Esau.  As you may recall from last week’s Torah reading, Jacob deceived his dying father, Isaac, by pretending to be his twin brother, Esau, and by means of this deception Jacob made off with the special blessing Isaac had intended to give his first born son, Esau.  Having been stripped of first-born privileges twice by Jacob at this point, Esau began muttering to himself that he would murder his brother once he got the chance. And having overheard Esau’s plotting, Rebecca sent Jacob away to her brother, Laban’s, household in the town of Haran.

This week’s parashah begins with young Jacob on the road to Haran.  He stops for the night at a certain place. He takes a stone to use for a pillow, drifts off to sleep, and has a life-changing dream.  Angles, or divine messengers, are ascending and descending a ladder connecting heaven and earth. God appears standing above the scene and blesses Jacob, saying:  “the land upon which you are lying I will give to you and to your descendants. And your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread out to the west and the east and the north and the south.  Through you and your descendants all the families of the earth shall find blessing. And here I am, with you: I will watch over you, and I will bring you back to this soil. I will not let go of you as long as I have yet to do what I have promised you.”

Jacob awakens from his dream, astonished and alert.  “Truly, God is in this place, and I did not know it!” he says aloud.  And he adds, “mah norah ha-makom ha-zeh: how awesome is this place!  This is none other than a house of God, and this is a gate of heaven!”

Jacob’s dream of the angels traveling up and down a ladder to heaven is famous.  Something I find interesting is that the entire story up to the point that Jacob awakens and realizes that God was in this place takes the Torah only 7 verses to tell.  But the element of this famous story that I’d like to focus on tonight is a single word that dominates the story – the Hebrew word makom, which means place.  The Torah’s storytelling style is sparse on words and fast on action.  So when a single word is repeated several times in the course of a story, you can bet that there’s special symbolic significance to it.  In this case, the word makom appears 5 times in the 7 verses that tell the story of his dream and his awakening, and 3 of those occurrences take place in one of those verses alone.   The narrating voice tells us that Jacob arrived at a certain makom, took one of the stones of the makom to use as a make-shift pillow, and that he lay down in that makom.  When Jacob wakes up, startled by his amazing dream, he says that God is in this makom and that this makom is awe-inspiring. Continue reading “D’var Torah – Vayetzey”