This was my Dvar Torah last Shabbat, Sept. 3, 2016.
On the final day of the 1949 baseball season, George Kell of Detroit edged out Ted Williams of the Red Sox for the American League batting title. Both of them are credited in the records as batting .343, which means that for every ten times they appeared at bat officially that season, they reached safely on average 3.34 times.
Batting averages are usually computed to the third decimal place -- the one-one-thousandth. This is ridiculous, actually, because no one comes up to bat one thousand times in a season. I found the pages that first discuss the statistic of batting average in the year 1872 edition of Beadle’s Dime Base-Ball Player, an annual report about baseball. It has the rules of baseball in it and a discussion of records. The editor, Henry Chadwick, explained in 1872 why he was convinced of the importance of batting average, which was then a new rating statistic. I hoped to see why batting average should be drawn out to the .001, but there was no explanation. It was just there, right from the start.
Anyway, 1949 was one of the closest batting races in baseball history. George Kell actually defeated Ted Williams by an average of .3439 to .3427 -- or one five-thousandth of a hit per time at bat.
Baseball, and most sports, are amazing symbols of the measurement of success and excellence. It’s not only the wild precision of batting averages. It's also the fact that everyone’s performance and value to the team, and their pursuit of excellence, takes place in public, with thousands of people watching live and many more listening in or watching in the media. Imagine if there were such a thing in life as keeping-promises percentage, complete-honesty ratio, patience index, or perhaps "earned-hugs average." What would our lives be like if we were that accountable morally on a real-time basis? If those statistics were published in the daily paper for our friends and community?
Today is Rosh Chodesh Elul. The moon is new, which means there is one month now leading up to Rosh Hashanah, our new year. We are meant to take this month to get ready for the High Holy Days, to take stock of ourselves and our relationships and our lives. To ask others for forgiveness for the things we have done wrong, and to give forgiveness to those who ask us. One Hebrew term for this process is cheshbon ha-nefesh חשבון הנפש, which literally means record-keeping for the soul -- checking our ethical and spiritual statistics.
This is daunting stuff. But maybe it could be easier to start if we drew on some lessons from sports statistics to get us going.
The greatest quarterbacks miss the receiver twice for every three times their passes are caught. In soccer or hockey, you play for an hour or more, and if the team scores five times it's unbelievable. The greatest hitters in baseball hit .333 -- they fail to get a hit twice as many times as they succeed.
But statistics focus on success. They don't publish how many times a hockey team has the puck and doesn't score or even shoot. If you’re that .333 hitter, you are an all-time great. If you open up the weekly summaries of the league, you see counts of hits and doubles and home runs, all manner of success. Yes, you might see strikeouts, but for the most part it’s about counting success, even though failure is far more prevalent.
The Izhbitzer Rebbe taught that the Torah uses the Hebrew words for confession (vidui וידוי) and for looking very carefully (hashkafa השקפה) in a surprising way. In the early part of the Torah, people confess their errors and God looks in hidden corners to see wrongs. But later on, the Torah teaches people to confess what they do well, and to ask God to help us see in hidden corners the effects of our goodness. The lesson, says the rebbe, is that before we can describe what we need forgiveness for, we should be reveling in our ethical successes. We should be counting goodness, the times we’ve been a blessing to others. Every coach and every athlete knows that the way you improve is by understanding what you’re already doing well, and building out from there.
The 1872 issue of Beadle’s Dime Base-Ball Player presented batting average as part of a debate over the best way to measure a batter’s success. The previous measure was hits per game. But a reader named H.A. Dobson had written to the editor that the players on teams that scored more runs would get more chances to bat, and therefore get more hits per game. You wouldn’t have an accurate measure of who was the superior ballplayer. The player with more hits per game might just be on a better team. Henry Chadwick was convinced, and for more than a century it was batting average alone by which hitters were judged.
If you are a serious sports fan, you know this debate continues about what statistics tell you the most about a player. Some measure the synergy between a player and the team -- wins and losses for a pitcher, runs batted in. Some isolate the individual’s successes, like batting average or earned run average.
Judaism has two terms for forgiveness, and it’s the same distinction. The words are selicha סליחה and mechila מחילה. Selicha involves making things right -- it’s the synergy of a relationship between two people. It’s figuring out what a wrong meant to the other person, or saying what a person did to hurt you, and trying to change the situation together.
Mechila מחילה is just about you. It means being willing to give up your honor, to stand ashamed for a moment. To have your own performance stand as it really was, to let another person help you see yourself clearly.
Traditionally, in the month of Elul we ask people for both, for slicha u'mechila סליחה ומחילה. We want to do better within our relationships and our groups, and as we look at ourselves alone in the mirror.
That process of forgiveness, selicha umechila, is one thing at a time. And if it’s hard to do, take heart in the perspective of baseball statistics, where succeeding just one time in three is greatness. Here’s a truth about reaching the major leagues of goodness, in this month of Elul and the new year to come. It’s courtesy of lifelong minor leaguer Crash Davis from the movie Bull Durham (watch the clip through 2:05):
You know what the difference is between hitting .250 and hitting .300? 1 got it figured out. Twenty-five hits a year in 500 at bats is 50 points. Okay? There's 6 months in a season, that's about 25 weeks--you get one extra flare a week--just one--a gork, a ground ball with eyes, a dying quail-- just one more dying quail a week -- and you're in Yankee Stadium!
As you think about your keeping-promises percentage, as you work on your honesty ratio or your patience index, remember: just more success a week, and you’re in... Fenway Park.