Welcoming the Familiar Face
A little “Who’s Who”: His aspirations were to become a professional soccer player, but a series of ankle injuries while playing at Pedro Pablo Sanchez High School dashed his hopes. After graduating from high school at age 16, he worked six-day weeks on a commercial boat captained by his father, catching shrimp and sardines The job was “way too tough” for this individual, who was more interested in becoming a mechanic As a 19-year-old, he had to abandon a capsizing 120-short-ton commercial boat, all but convincing him to give up fishing as a career. If the tide had turned, he may have remained in his native Panama, catching shrimp instead of throwing baseballs.
Six years later, he’d make his major league debut with the New York Yankees as a starting pitcher. Today, we know him as the greatest closer of all time, Mariano Rivera.
As Rivera is set to retire at the end of the season, opposing teams have honored him in their respective ballparks during his farewell tour.
The Boston Red Sox, my Red Sox, the sworn enemy of the NY Yankees, honored Mariano Rivera Sunday night on the occasion of his final regular-season game at Fenway Park.
A few of the highlights from the evening (as depicted by the Boston Globe):
- When Rivera was introduced, he jogged to the mound, where the entire Red Sox team awaited him. He received hugs from players David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia and some gifts from the club.
- First, the Red Sox presented Rivera a painting of the unscripted and delightful moment in April 2005 when he was greeted with a standing ovation from the fans during pregame introductions on the day the 2004 World Series flag was raised at Fenway.
- Rivera, who realized that the fans were thanking him for his two blown saves in the 2004 ALCS — along with his two blown saves in the Yankees-Red Sox series that opened the ’05 season — broke into a big smile and raised his arms in bemused thanks. It was that moment that was captured in the painting.
- The Red Sox also presented Rivera the panel from the manually operated Green Monster scoreboard that had his number “42” on it. It was signed by every current Boston player.
- Rivera also received a Fenway Park seat from 1934, a pitching rubber from the visiting bullpen and an undisclosed donation for his charitable foundation from the Red Sox owners.
- Rivera then shook hands with the Red Sox players as Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” (Rivera’s theme song) played over the loudspeakers and highlights of Rivera succeeding against the Red Sox came up on the centerfield scoreboard. Earlier, the Boston Cello Quartet played “Enter Sandman” to open the ceremony after finishing the national anthem.
What a beautiful night for both Rivera and Boston. There is something special about appreciating a player who made your team sweat, who made your players lift themselves to a higher level and outperform, brought an entire Red Sox Nation from years of frustration into years of plenty, years of championships. A nation that ascended because one player brought the best out of them. There is something sacred about treating your guests in the highest regard and the greatest respect. Although I am surely biased, the classy Red Sox exhibit the value of hakhnasat orchim, welcoming guests, a mitzvah highlighted on this festival of sukkot. It is the value of ushpizin, welcoming guests into Fenway Park, what is for many of the players and staff a home away from home, a temporary dwelling, a holy place, a sukkah.
With a formula established by the kabbalists in the 16th century, based on the earlier Zohar, on each night of Sukkot we invite these Ushpizin, one of seven exalted individuals to take up residence in the sukkah with us. The Zohar states,
“When a man sits in the shadow of faith (sukkah) the Shekhinah (Divine Presence) spreads Her wings on him from above and Abraham and five other righteous ones of God (and David with them) make their abode with him? A person should rejoice each day of the festival with these guests. Upon entering the succah, Rav Hamnuna Sava would rejoice and, standing inside the doorway, say “Let us invite the guests and prepare the table.” Then he would remain on his feet and bless them, saying, ‘IN sukkot you should dwell. Be seated exalted guests, be seated; be seated guests of faithfulness, be seated.’ He would then raise his hands in joy and say, ‘Worthy is our portion, worthy is the portion of Israel, as it is written: For God’s portion is his people.’ Then he would sit down.” (Zohar Emor 103b)
Each day we welcome not only an individual, but the ideals that they embodied.
The seven sefirot, or divine energies, we are fed by the ushpizin are:
First day: Chesed—the attribute of “Benevolence” or “ Love”—personified by Abraham.
Second day: Gevurah—“Restraint” and “Discipline”—embodied by Isaac.
Third day: Tif’eret—“Beauty,” “Harmony” and “Truth”—embodied Jacob.
Fourth day: Netzach—“Victory” and “Endurance”—Moses.
Fifth day: Hod—“Splendor” and “Humility”—Aaron.
Sixth day: Yesod—“Foundation” and “Connection”—Joseph.
Seventh day: Malchut—“Sovereignty,” “Receptiveness” and “Leadership”—David
In modern times, we welcome seven female figures in Jewish history who embody similar positive attributes. While the selection of these 7 individuals often differs, here is one assortment of female leaders that we recognize as Ushpizot.
1) Eve, for her passions and connection to the Earth
2) Sarah, for nation building and destiny
3) Leah, for motherhood, giving and selflessness
4) Miriam- for vision, initiative and expressiveness
5) Deborah – for leadership, strength and power
6) Beruriah- for intellect and wisdom
7) Ruth- for unconditional love
It is in stark contrast with our High Holiday liturgy in which we often speak of our transgressions rather than the values that SHOULD define our lives. Values of vision, strength and initiative empower us to go forth into a year of “Yes I can” rather than “No I’m sorry.” No more beating our chests for the sins in our lives, but rather the positive attributes we should all embody. All this from harkening the call of our ancestors, the heroes of yesterday. From Moses to Miriam to Mariano.
One might be confused why I can devote a speech to the evil empire with the knowledge of my Red Sox affiliation. In our evening prayers we recite the Hashkiveinu prayer asking for a “sukkat shalom”, a shelter of piece from our enemies. Isn’t Mariano Rivera my enemy? At the end of the day, Mariano Rivera is not my enemy. In a few weeks time, he will be something other than a baseball player. But to any Red Sox fan, “Mo” is what I’d call a “familiar face.” He hasn’t shared our clubhouse, our traditions, the inner workings of our organization, but we invite him into our sukkah, into Fenway, because maybe he has something to teach us about ourselves; reveal to us what we are made of. He is a frequent guest, a respected guest, a familiar face.
The Ushpizin are not unfamiliar characters- they are some of the more prominent individuals from our Tanakh. They are meant to be familiar faces. For familiar faces have the opportunity to drive us to improve ourselves, to teach us, to remind us of some important values that can drive our lives.
In its temporary nature, the sukkah acts as an open book, a glass house where everyone, close friends and even the casual acquaintance see right through. We are exposed.
We can treat the sukkah like a shark proof cage- giving us a glimpse of the outside world while protecting ourselves from the harsh realities? We can glance at the gloomy cloud above dampening our chances to invite our acquaintances in to our lives. We can worry about spreading ourselves too thin. Or, our sukkah, in theory, can act like its counterpart, the chuppah, open on all four sides, ever expanding our social network in tangible, authentic way. Of all the ushpizin and ushpizot, of all the values that we are reminded of, be it wisdom, strength humility and so forth, two values ushpizin stick out. Our first male guest, Abraham, and our final female guest, Ruth, share the same value, unconditional love.
We are taught “Vsmachta B’chagecha”- that you should rejoice in the holiday; our joy based on inviting friends and family but also giving to the needy in our community. We are often reminded of these two polar relationships in Judaism- those closest to us, and those on the fringes. Rarely, however, do we focus on those in the middle- the familiar face, the friendly acquaintance. Maybe it is time to bring them close to us as we gather in for our harvest season.
May this holiday’s harvest be plentiful, may we share that plenty with all who we come in contact. May we seek out those familiar faces in our lives and deepen our relationships with them, for we never know what values they may teach us, what lessons we can learn. May we offer up unconditional love to all who enter the temporariness of our lives. If we are reminded of the values of Abraham and Ruth, of unconditional love, then next year, we can look at our Sukkah, acknowledge those Ushpizin who shared their love with us and joyfully proclaim, “This is the house that (Abraham and) Ruth built.”
As a side note, here are the 7 “Rivera”ism that we can welcome on Sukkot:
First day- The value of The Cutter; the out pitch. The cutter’s movement is created by Rivera’s long fingers and loose wrist, which allow him to impart more spin on the ball. Over 80% of his pitches are cut fastballs. To know that you have a way out when you are in a tough spot
Second day: The value of Relief. He is the majors’ all-time regular season leader in saves (651)
Third Day: The value of consistency. Rivera saved at least 25 games in 15 consecutive seasons
Fourth Day: The value of Longevity. 19 seasons
Fifth day: The value of clutch moments. 16 Postseason records
Sixth day: The value of yesod, foundation. The Mariano Rivera Foundation, which helps provide underprivileged children with an education, distributes more than $500,000 in the US and Panama through church-based institutions
Seventh day: The value of composure. Rivera, the closer, comes into the game at tense moments. 3 outs to go. Game on the line.