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BP Oil Spill Hits Day 50

If BP was trying to make a Jewish connection to the oil spill off the Louisiana coast, they got it all wrong.

Yesterday marked the 49th day of the BP oil spill. Perhaps BP was going for the Hanukkah story connection, which is “The Oil lasted for 8 days.” Instead, BP got confused with the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which is 49 days of counting the harvest and the 50th day (Shavuot) is the anniversary of the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai.

Hopefully this environmental mess will be remedied soon as the effects on wildlife are certainly a violation of the Jewish principle of “tzar ba’alei chayim” — the responsibility to treat animals ethically.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Baseball Detroit Ethics Forgiveness Jewish Morals Sports

Perfection is Hard to Come By

While I often write about sports on this blog, I have always done so through a Jewish perspective. In fact, everything I write on this blog I write through a Jewish perspective.

So, why am I writing about last night’s Detroit Tigers baseball game in which pitcher Armando Galarraga had a perfect game until the 9th inning with two outs when 1st base umpire Jim Joyce blew an obvious call? Galarraga isn’t Jewish and neither is Jim Joyce. And yet, last night in my hometown of Detroit, as I watched Galarraga’s perfect game ended by a human error and all the emotional reactions to it, I found the entire episode to be full of Jewish lessons.

Perfect games in baseball are a rarity. (It is unusual that Galarraga’s would have been the third perfect game this season and we’re only a few days into June.) In Judaism, we understand that perfection is hard to come by. We’re taught that God created an imperfect world. The concept of Tikkun Olam urges us to be active participants in helping make the world perfect for future generations. But since no human is completely perfect, mistakes are made that constantly keep the world from being in perfect harmony. Umpire Jim Joyce made a mistake last night. His error had significant implications for another human being (Galarraga), but it also demonstrates that in our pursuit of perfection there will always be actions beyond our control that will keep us from attaining our goal.

The fact that Jim Joyce was so quick to admit his error and then apologize directly to Galarraga should not go unnoticed. Like every other Tigers fan, and indeed like any baseball fan, I was torn apart watching Jim Joyce ruin Galarraga’s perfect game last night. However, the umpire acted like a mensch in his contrition and apology. The Jewish concept of teshuvah (repentance) was brought to mind as Joyce’s admission was played repeatedly on ESPN Sportcenter. He admitted that he blew the call without any qualification (something umpires and referees rarely do) and then he admitted that he “just cost that kid a perfect game.”

There has already been much discussion and debate about whether baseball commissioner Bud Selig should reverse the call and give Galarraga the perfect game that he deserves, and there will be much more on this topic in the days to come. This will also serve as a platform for those who wish to see instant reply brought into Major League Baseball.

But what I wish to focus on is what transpired immediately after the umpire’s error. Galarraga kept his composure. He didn’t yell or scream. He didn’t lose his temper and push the umpire. He maintained his cool. After the game, he just shook his head and explained that he’d eventually tell his kids that he threw a perfect game on that night even if the record books didn’t record it that way. In an era in which we see professional athletes lie and cheat (see: the Steroid Scandal), get in opponents’ faces and taunt them, and hurl profanities at umpires and referees, it was refreshing to see Galarraga take the umpire’s mistake like a man — or better yet, as a mensch.

And the fact that Umpire Jim Joyce wasted no time after the game in asking to see Galarraga to offer his deepest apologies also serves as a good example for our children. When you make a mistake, acknowledge it and offer your genuine forgiveness (mechila in Hebrew) no matter how severe the offense.

Whether Bud Selig does the right thing and reverses the bad call or not, this episode in one of the American Pastime’s greatest games will go down in history as an example of how human error makes perfection hard to come by… and why owning up to our mistakes and asking for forgiveness is such a noble deed.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Baseball Detroit Ethics Obituary

Ernie Harwell – The Voice of Tigers Baseball

Hall of Fame baseball broadcaster Ernie Harwell died on Tuesday. He was 92. He had been battling cancer for over a year. It was his time to go and yet his passing has cast a pall over Detroit. Upon hearing of his death, I began to feel both sad and nostalgic. To paraphrase Ernie, “I stood there like the house by the side of the road.” Ernie Harwell was Detroit Tigers baseball and his legendary voice was the voice of my youth.

He looked frail the last time I saw him — at the Fox Theatre in Detroit sharing a conversation on stage with Mitch Albom in front of a packed house. He lived in a retirement community where my wife’s grandmother lives and she reported that he no longer ate in the dining room. Rumors spread that he was in hospice care, confined to his room at Fox Run in Novi. His death was expected. And yet, it stung the city and baseball fans everywhere.

My first inclination was to write about this loss and to pay tribute to the man. Yet, over the years I’ve only posted on this blog through a Jewish perspective. Where’s the Jewish angle in Ernie Harwell’s death, I wondered. He was a man of faith — he became a born-again Christian during a Billy Graham Easter service. He was even baptized in the Jordan River. He certainly wasn’t a Jew.

And yet, there was something about Ernie Harwell that strikes me as so-very-Jewish. He was the epitome of a mensch. No one had an unkind word to say about Ernie. The Emory University graduate was a gentleman and possessed a Southern charm. He was full of wit and wisdom. And he was more than charitable throughout his entire life. His foundation supports the arts and college scholarships. He also possessed what is known in Hebrew as a kol na’im — a pleasant voice. It was that memorable voice to which I would doze off as I listened to Ernie call Tiger games on the radio at summer camp. I listened to that voice on those long car rides Up North and as background noise when I did my homework in high school.

Mitch Albom wrote a beautiful tribute to Ernie Harwell in yesterday’s Detroit Free Press. I was moved to tears reading his account of how Ernie would welcome new broadcasters into the press box. “[Someone] would nudge the new guy and say, ‘Do you know who that was? That was Ernie Harwell. THE Ernie Harwell.’ No one ever earned a ‘THE’ more than him.”

It’s difficult to explain why so many people feel so heartbroken about a 92-year-old baseball broadcaster dying. I suppose it’s because the voice of baseball is gone and baseball is more than just the American pastime; it’s a religion too. A friend of mine remarked that when Ernie Harwell died, his childhood finally ended.

This evening at my son’s little league game, one of the players hit a foul ball that was caught by the opposing team’s coach. Without even thinking, I said: “A fan from Farmington Hills caught that one.” I smiled. So did everyone around me. It was one of his trademark phrases.

This morning at 7 a.m. fans began to pay their respects to Ernie Harwell at a public viewing at Comerica Park. At midnight there was still a line around the stadium. A fitting tribute indeed.

I’ll close with the words of my boyhood hero, Tigers slugger Kirk Gibson: “”He was an icon. The saying that you treat people the way you want to be treated, he represented that to its fullest.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Charity Ethics Israel Jewish Medicine Tzedakah World Events

Proud of Israel

Israel often gets slammed by the media, so when there is positive coverage of Israel in the news, it is important to showcase it. Several major media outlets have lauded Israel for its quick and efficient aid in Haiti following the devastating earthquake there.

Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb of the Orthodox Union writes for the JTA: “The Jewish community, in its entirety, can be proud of its response thus far to the Haitian catastrophe. Rescue teams from the State of Israel and millions of dollars from the Jews of America are but examples of our response. Whatever the motivation for these responses, this has been a religious response, a Jewish response.” He explains earlier in his op-ed that the Jewish way of responding to natural disasters is to: “See. Feel. Act.”

Yesterday, I was pleasantly surprised to see how CNN was singing the praises of Israel’s response in Haiti. Even though the Israelis came from the other side of the world, the report notes that the Israeli army was the first to set up a field hospital in Haiti. One woman explains, “I’ve been here since Thursday and no one except the Israeli hospital has taken our patients.” When the reporter walks into the Israeli field hospital she says that it’s like another world because of the imaging technology and the operating rooms the Israelis have set up. Diane Sawyer also featured the quick response by the Israelis in Haiti on ABC News. Sawyer speaks with a correspondent who helped deliver a baby and then watched as another baby was delivered in the Israel Defense Forces field hospital. The baby was named “Israel.”

Here is the video clip from the CNN report:

In addition to the response by the Israelis on the ground in Haiti, other articles have praised the American Jewish community for the outpouring of aid through charitable gifts and medical supplies. The JTA reports: “By Tuesday, AJWS raised $1.8 million from more than 16,000 people via its Web site. The JUF-Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago raised $283,000 in five days from 2,200 donors. Almost all of it — nearly $260,000 – came in online, from 2,058 individuals. UJA-Federation of Greater Toronto raised $173,240 so far, much of it online. Those involved in the fund-raising effort say the Jewish community’s gifts to the people of Haiti stem from Jewish values.”

The New York Times today also featured an article praising Israel, but this time it had to do with the Winter Olympics. The article explained that Israel is hardly a winter sports powerhouse (no surprise!), but this year may prove differently for Israel in the Winter Olympics in downhill skiing and ice-skating.

I can only hope that this positive coverage of Israel by the media continues. At least the world is taking notice of Israel’s rapid response to the need for humanitarian aid in Haiti.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Baseball Ethics Jewish Sports

Mark McGwire

Last week, former Time Warner head Jerry Levin, marked the 10th anniversary of his disastrous merger deal with AOL by finally apologizing and accepting responsibility. Levin issued his mea culpa on CNBC explaining that he “presided over the worst deal of the century” and how sorry he is for “the pain and suffering and loss that was caused.”

I thought of Levin’s apology the other day when I watched former baseball slugger Mark McGwire finally admit to taking performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) as a player. Sure, McGwire’s is a different admission of guilt. He’s more of a guilt-ridden cheat than Levin, who made a horrible business decision. No one lost their job because McGwire took steroids to bulk up and hit more homers. Yet, both of these apologies came many years after the actual deed was done.

I’m not going to get into the debate about whether there was anything actually wrong with players “juicing up” during the steroid era of professional baseball. If you’re interested in an insightful discussion on the topic, I recommend the recent book Cooperstown Confidential, by Zev Chafets. The author explains the results of the Mitchell Commission and takes baseball purist George Will to task for arguing that the steroid era altered the very essence of the game.

The issue here is not only whether McGwire is truly contrite for using PEDs, but also whether he really feels remorse for his evasiveness and outright lying about his steroid use. While many of Mac’s fans (and Sammy Sosa’s) inevitably feel cheated knowing now that the famous homerun race of ’98 was between two ‘roid raging monsters, the real concern of baseball should be the unethical way McGwire handled the accusations over these many years.

The homer battle between Sosa and McGwire was actually a level playing field since both sluggers were juicing. Baseball purists will argue that McGwire’s numbers can’t be compared with the players of the past (e.g., Ruth, Maris, etc.) because of his unfair pharmaceutical advantage (Barry Bonds too for that matter). But these are debates to be had among stats fans and the history buffs of the game. The question of how the Hall of Fame will handle the stars of the steroid era is another thorny question, but not one that is germane to McGwire’s admission this week.

The question I ask as a rabbi is whether Mac’s confession should count as legitimate repentance (teshuvah). We’ve heard just about every form of “I’m sorry” from our sports stars throughout history (the philandering golfers, the wife-beating hoop stars, the drug-abusing baseball players, the gun-toting football players, the gambling refs, and on and on). But what exactly did McGwire apologize for? After all, he seemed to have plenty of excuses for his steroid use and even blamed the “steroid era” for what he did. He claimed he did it for his “health,” and not to be a better player. When asked if he could have hit all those dingers had he not juiced, without hesitation he said, “Absolutely. Look at my track record as far as hitting home runs. They still talk about home runs I hit in high school. I was given the gift to hit home runs.”

Doing real teshuvah and being contrite are not the same as regret or a confession. Whether he considers his juicing to be cheating or not, Mark McGwire still hasn’t owned up to his lying about what he did. It took him many years to finally admit that he used PEDs, but baseball fans everywhere are still waiting to hear him articulate that he understands how his evasiveness cheated the public. He must take responsibility for his actions.

McGwire returns to baseball this spring as the hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals. There are, of course, many who believe this is the only reason he finally admitted his steroid use. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps, his admission now is because keeping those demons in the closet makes it difficult to live as a man. But in terms of performing teshuvah, Big Mac still has his work cut out for him. And no drug will make that task any easier.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Celebrities Ethics Jewish Sports

Tiger Woods

Originally posted at Kaplan’s Korner: On Jews & Sports. Thank you to Ron Kaplan, of the New Jersey Jewish News, for asking me to guest blog on this topic for Kaplan’s Korner.

The Takeaway from Tiger’s Triple Bogey

When it was first reported that Tiger Woods was injured in a single car crash on Nov. 27, many suspected there might be more to the story. This was based on the fact that no one would believe that Tiger’s wife was simply testing the durability of the SUV’s windows with Tiger’s Nike driver.

Tiger WoodsNow, after days of refusing to come clean to the media about any personal indiscretions, Tiger Woods has admitted to marital infidelity. Like the public confessions of adultery often made by disgraced politicians, there will be those who argue this is a personal matter that should remain within the confines of the Woods family, as well as those who take the side that celebrities’ dirty laundry is to be aired in the free-for-all that is the public domain.

Tiger is a mega-celebrity and there’s no way around his private transgressions becoming public fodder. That’s the downside of celebrity. It sort of makes you wonder why “Average Joe’s” like the Balloon Boy’s dad, the White House party crashers, Joe the Plumber, and reality TV wannabes would really want to put their life in the spotlight. I’m sure Tiger learned long ago that fame and fortune would follow from his extraordinary talents on the golf course, but that the downside would be that his private life would no longer remain private. His lapses in judgment, while no worse than many a common man’s, would be the headlines on the covers of newspapers, websites, and tabloid magazines. Certainly, one lesson he has learned as a result of this event is that he really does need a press release for private matters. The public will fight until the story is revealed and that means no celebrity is free to take the Fifth when the media come calling.

No matter what your opinion of whether the media — and therefore the public – should allow Tiger Woods and his wife some privacy to deal with their “issue,” the fact remains that his adultery is now part of the public discourse. So, what is there to be learned from his mistake? Much like the time a decade ago when our president admitted his disregard for his marital promise of monogamy, the public will be discussing the issue of adultery yet again.

From the Jewish perspective, adultery is clearly a sin; the seventh commandment prohibits adultery. Judaism unambiguously categorizes marriage as a holy act (kiddushin in Hebrew).

In Genesis, Joseph admonishes his seductress, Potiphar’s wife, telling her that adultery is a sin against God. Perhaps the most well known act of adultery recorded in the Torah is when King David bedded Batsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. That act led to the tragic murder of Uriah at the hand of David.

Adultery truly begins a slippery slope of negative actions. It leads to additional lying and cheating through denial. Furthermore, adultery never ends well because it is usually several people who get hurt.

We live in a time when the magazines in the checkout line portray celebrities as “just like us.” These icons supposedly grocery shop like us, drink their morning coffee, ride their bicycle, and yell at their kids in the park just like we do. They have lapses in judgment just like us, too. But of course, they are much different than us in reality because the average guy doesn’t have to issue a press release when he’s accused of cheating on his wife.

It is indeed sad that the greatest golfer in the world can’t keep his private affairs from the eager claws of the TMZ generation, but that’s just the dark side of life in the spotlight. Poor Tiger is desperately trying to fight his way out of the toughest sand trap he’s ever faced and we wish him well. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn something from his ordeal.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |