If I Forget Thee, O Ken Griffey, Jr….

Like many immigrants, I retain aspects of my life in the old world while at the same time adapting to those in the new. That is the same for me having immigrated to the new world of the Pacific Northwest from the old world of New York. That has taken adjustment over the years, and nothing more slowly than my acculturation in baseball.

As you may know, I am by birth a fan of the New York Yankees, but have, after many years, come to see the Seattle Mariners as my own as well.

So when it was announced that Ken Griffey, Jr. was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame with the largest percentage of votes ever, and will be the first player to be depicted in the Hall with a Mariners uniform, I celebrated not only as a fan of baseball but as a fan of the Mariners as well.

Ken Griffey Jr.
(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Griffey was indeed a stellar player and his election to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility was well deserved. He was elected with 99.3% of the ballot (437 out of 440 votes). And while on the one hand that is a great achievement, on the other hand it begs the question, why was his election not unanimous? Or in other words, why did three people not vote for Ken Griffey, Jr.?

[Hall of Famers are voted on by baseball sportswriters. Each year they fill out a ballot with eligible former players (players need to have played for a certain amount of time and been retired for 5 years). A player who receives 75% of the vote is elected, and candidates stay on the ballot for 10 years.]

The question of who didn’t vote for Griffey may not be answered right away, or the answer may never be known. It is important to note that none of the greats were elected on the first ballot, so perhaps one of the sportswriters compared Griffey to those past greats and felt that since they weren’t voted in unanimously, then Griffey shouldn’t be voted in unanimously. Or perhaps one of the sportswriters felt that no one, no matter what their statistics, should be elected in their first year of eligibility.

Or maybe someone thought that with a unanimous vote for Griffey a distinct possibility, they would not vote for him because of a belief that nobody should be elected anonymously.

It reminds me of an esoteric tradition within Judaism called  zecher l’churban. Literally it translates to “a remembrance of the destruction,” referring to the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, first in 586 BCE then again in 70 CE. The destruction of the Temple is seen as one of the great calamities of Judaism, because it was the central institution of the Jewish people, the place where major worship happened, and the location where it was believed the people were spiritually closest to God. Following the destruction, the Temple took on a central place in the religious imagination of the Jewish people; its destruction invoked as a metaphor for the world’s imperfection and its restoration invoked as a metaphor for redemption. Indeed, we face east for certain prayers because we face this holy spot.

The practice of zecher l’churban is drawn from the Talmud, the body of Jewish literature developed not long after the Temple’s destruction. In seeing that communities were mourning excessively for the Temple’s destruction, the rabbis created a new rule:

The Sages have ordained: a person may stucco a house, but should leave a little bare. How much? Rabbi Joseph says, a cubit square. A person can prepare a full-course banquet, but should leave out an item or two. A person can put on ornaments, but should leave off an item or two. For it says, in Psalm 137, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.” [Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra 60b]

The rabbis say yes it is OK to mourn for the loss of the Temple, but do it in a reasonable symbolic way. So when you paint your house, or prepare a lavish meal, or dress up fancy, leave a little undone as a reminder of the destruction.

Or in other words, as I like to understand it, we should always have with us a reminder of imperfection. For we, and the world, are imperfect. And this reminder of imperfection should instill in us a sense of humility and the possibility of redemption.

Which brings us back to Griffey. We know that nobody is perfect, we all fail at some time or another, even those who rise to the top of their field like Griffey did. And so no matter how great one is, no matter how accomplished one is, no matter how advanced one is, maybe no one is worthy of a unanimous vote. Those three votes (or non-votes) that kept Griffey from attaining 100% is a zecher l’churban, an important reminder of human imperfection.

Mazel tov to Ken Griffey, Jr. May your 437 votes remind us of the potential for greatness. And may those three votes remind us of our need for humility.

Investing in Oil, Lighting our Future

We are perhaps all familiar with the story of Hanukkah, which begins this coming Tuesday night. In the second century BCE, the Jewish community was under the tyrannical rule of the Syrian-Greek king Antiochus IV, who imposed a series of harsh anti-Jewish measures on the population. He forbade the practice of Judaism, imposed Hellenizing policies and event went so far as to turn the Temple in Jerusalem—the most holy spot and the center of Jewish life at the time—into a shrine for idol worship.

A band of rebels led by a priest named Mattathias and his sons, known as the Maccabees, led a revolt against the Greek army. They succeeded in overthrowing the Greeks, establishing an independent Jewish state and recapturing the Temple.

That is the rough history, the story that we tell. The details always add more nuance to the general narrative, but the story provides some key understandings of why we celebrate Hanukkah: a celebration of Jewish identity, the value of religious tbh-3liberty, the importance of communal self-determination.

And then, of course, there is the folklore associated with the story, primarily the story of the oil. As the story goes, after the defeat of the Greeks, the Jews went to rededicate the Temple. They removed any evidence of idol worship and rededicated (Hanukkah means “dedication”)the Temple to Jewish practice. A key part of Temple practice was the menorah—a candelabrum that was continuously lit. (The ner tamid “eternal light” in our contemporary synaogues are meant to recall this light). The Maccabees found only enough sanctified oil to last for one day, when lit however it lasted for eight.

The volume of one vial of oil multiplied eight-fold. Some call this the miracle of Hanukkah. Others may call it a very successful return on investment.

It’s what we all hope will happen: we take something small and turn it into something big. Gardeners and farmers hold on to this hope each growing season—that from a small seed a large bounty will be produced. We use our communal resources to educate our children, hoping that as they grow they will use their knowledge and experience to make their own contribution to community and society.

And in the financial world, we put aside some money now, invest it and let it grow so we can reap the benefits of it later.

As a Jewish community in Olympia, as we celebrate that investment in oil futures that we mark on Hanukkah, we are in the process of investing in our own future with the Building Strength Capital Campaign.

It has been 10 years since we moved into our new home at Temple Beth Hatfiloh, and now is the time to secure the future of this home by building an endowment that will allow us to care for our sacred communal space in perpetuity. We have never had an endowment at TBH, and we are one of the few congregations in the area that does not. Our building requires a lot of care and attention, and our congregational leadership has wisely decided that rather than come hat-in-hand each time we need to do a maintenance project, we build an endowment that will pay out over time the costs associated with upkeep and repair.

[And our congregational leadership has planned this out, developing a spreadsheet of projected maintenance and replacement projects over the next 30 years.]

We know that a community or congregation is not defined by a physical structure. Our building does not make us who we are: a community dedicated to Jewish tradition, to education, to communal service, to social justice, to love and support. But our building gives us a place to live out our ideals and values, and provides us a central address where we can connect and make our Jewish home.

And not just for us. Our building has become a gathering place for other organizations, has hosted community events and concerts, has provided a warm shelter for the homeless.

The Building Strength Capital Campaign has been progressing very successfully, but we need more support. I have pledged, the Board has pledged, many community members have pledged. I invite you to join me in this endeavor. You can click here for the campaign materials and a pledge form.

Unlike our last capital campaign that produced our building, we won’t get something exciting to look at out of this one. An investment account and the promise of a future roof replacement are not very thrilling, I know. But we are investing in something more important—an idea. The idea that the Jewish presence in Olympia is worth perpetuating, and that Jewish tradition and community in Olympia are valuable to us and to the generations to come.

We would do well to remember this as Hanukkah approaches. For while the story of the rededication of the Temple is the focal point of the holiday of Hanukkah, even giving the festival its name, we remember that the Maccabees were not just fighting for a building. They were fighting for the same idea: that a Jewish communal presence is worth perpetuating, and that Jewish tradition and community are valuable throughout the generations.

And here we are, celebrating Hanukkah.

So as we celebrate Hanukkah and the rededication of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, let’s recommit to the dedication of our Temple here in Olympia. If we do so, we can also witness the miracle of the light of Judaism continuing to burn bright.