| Second Thoughts |

Empty Stadiums and Empty Shuls

One can learn from everyone and from everything — even from baseball tycoons

 

To own a baseball team, it helps to be wealthy; it also helps to be clever. Faced with a pandemic-shortened season and the accompanying absence of fans, certain intrepid owners decided to do the next best thing: to create their own fans. And so they constructed thousands of life-size cardboard cutouts to “fill” their stadiums. For 50 dollars you can have your own full-color picture enlarged, laminated, and cardboard-ized, and placed in a choice seat behind home plate — where it will remain for the entire season.

The advantages are many. Your likeness is at the game, while you relax at home. No more frantic searching for a parking space within a mile of the ball park. No more standing in line to get to your seat. You don’t have to imbibe warm beer or soggy peanuts. You don’t have to get hoarse cheering for your team. No inebriated spectators to disturb you, no pesky ushers to ask you to sit down because you’re blocking the view of those behind you. For 50 bucks you’re set for the season. Personalized life-size cardboard cutouts at athletic events: an idea whose time has come.

Which generates some speculation during this awesome Tishrei season. Many of us, unable to be in a shul these Yamim Noraim, davened at home, or at best in some tent or front yard or driveway. Suppose that some enterprising shul gabbai, unhappy with his empty shul, placed a cardboard cutout of ourselves, complete with tallis and yarmulke, at our regular seat in shul, and kept it there week after week.

For the gabbai this would be, if I may use the expression, a G-dsend. The cutout would never demand an aliyah or an honor, would sit quietly and never whisper to his neighbor, would disturb no one by moving in and out of the row, would listen respectfully to the rabbi’s sermon and never fall asleep, would never complain that the davening is too slow or too fast: the very model of a model congregant.

The shul gabbaim might like this, but what about up in Heaven? Would the ministering angels, the malachei rachamim who carry our prayers to the A-mighty, notice any difference between the living, pulsating Jew who sat in that seat last year, and the cutout occupying that same place this year? Might it occur to an unfriendly prosecuting angel that there is no religious difference between last year’s living person, and this year’s cardboard cutout? This angel, who is very perceptive, might notice that the current piece of cardboard and the living former occupant of that seat are spiritually identical: there is not one iota of change or growth or development from last year. Which, as Heaven weighs and considers our prayers and petitions, could be somewhat embarrassing.

One can learn from everyone and from everything — even from baseball tycoons. If year after year we beseech G-d’s mercy in these awesome days of Tishrei, but present ourselves to our Creator as the same unchanged person as the previous year, with the same level of tzedakah, the same level of connection to G-d and to others, the same level of prayer, the same level of chesed, the same level of Torah study, with no improvement, and no upward movement; if we are tethered to the identical, self-satisfied status where we have always been; if we have remained static and not dynamic — are we very different from those cardboard cutouts?

To evolve from cutout to human, to change, grow, and develop, is difficult, and requires Divine assistance. Here is a suggested prototype for a prayer: Creator of the universe, I know I cannot do a full makeover of myself, but help me change some small aspect of my being. My needs are great, my wish list is long, and I am unworthy. Help me at least with several of them, because only with Your assistance can I become a better me: less self-centered and more caring, less angry and more forgiving, less impulsive and more thoughtful, less hostile and more loving, less judgmental and more understanding; help me add one new mitzvah that connects me to You, such as non-rote prayer or tefillin, or more conscious brachos, or daily Torah study even if only ten minutes.

This is a partial wish list. There is much more. But if You can help me tweak even one or two of these, that will be a vital first step of my journey. Because some day, may it come speedily, I would like to become more of a person and less of a slab of cardboard. And next year, maybe the real me and not a cutout will occupy my seat.

 

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 830)

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