Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
Yogi Berra was the master of saying the wrong thing in the most right way. His death a couple of weeks ago at the age of 90 was an occasion to celebrate a man who despite a stellar baseball career managed to become more well known for his personality and character than his accomplishments on the field. His best known quips, or Yogi-isms, may be among the most quoted words in the English language even though, according to the man himself “I never said most of the things I said.”
I thought about Yogi, a man great enough to bring rival Met and Yankee fans together in admiration, during this season of Sukkot. After all, what better symbol for a holiday that celebrates faith in life’s fragility than the man who said “If everything was perfect it wouldn’t be.”
In fact, on Sukkot we read from another source of slightly twisted perspective, the book of Ecclesiastes also known as Kohelet. Kohelet, to use a few of Yogi’s words, taught that although you could “Observe a lot just by watching” most of what you would see is that life is “deja vu all over again.” In some ways it would seem that the two sources of wisdom are quite different – the preacher of Ecclesiastes is often looked at as dour and jaded whereas Yogi provided his wit with a sense of warmth and optimism. However, to borrow from Yogi again, their differences may be more similar after all. What made Yogi and his Yogi-isms both endearing and enduring is that they captured the paradox at the heart of life and the way language was somehow both inadequate and surprisingly able to capture a kernel of truth. Kohelet, on the other hand, engaged in that paradox as a way of teaching that meaning is only found in the moment and any other measure of life, no matter how noble or how desired, will ultimately be shown to be without true substance.
Kohelet’s main lament is usually translated “Vanity of vanities all is vanity” but the Hebrew is really better captured by the term breath or wind. All is ephemeral and blows away like the wind and yet is as precious and as vital as breath. What gets us in trouble is trying to ignore this fragility, this fleeting nature of life and pretending that everything we have or that we strive for is more substantial, more real, and more everlasting. For me, this is part of the charm of Yogi and what makes his words hit home. His great accomplishments and fame did not keep him from having a palpable sense of humility. When his record for homeruns as a catcher was surpassed by Johnny Bench he wrote “Congratulations, I knew the record would stand until it was broken.” And yet he did not despair at life’s fragility knowing, famously, “that it ain’t over till it’s over.”
This sense of acceptance even in the midst of faith and optimism is why Kohelet is read during the holiday of Sukkot, the time in which we who are lucky enough to have a roof over our head leave the solidity of the house and go out into flimsy shelters. No time of year is called more joyous than these days even as we leave aside what during most of the year we think of as the markers of our joy: our accomplishments, our security, our control of our fate. We learn again that the only thing that truly can be counted as a blessing is the breath we take at this moment. After all, it’s tough to make predictions. Especially about the future.
Pronounced: sue-KOTE, or SOOH-kuss (oo as in book), Origin: Hebrew, a harvest festival in which Jews eat inside temporary huts, falls in the Jewish month of Tishrei, which usually coincides with September or October.