Throwing the Knuckleball

Delivered Yom Kippur Day 5773…

In this season of confession, I am not sure that anyone out there is willing to admit to being a Mets’ fan.  If there are any Mets’ fans out there, perhaps the one positive aspect to the Mets’ less-than-stellar season has been RA Dickey, who has a chance to win 20 games despite the Mets’ mediocrity.  It’s hard to imagine how much worse they would have been without him.

What’s really interesting about RA Dickey is that he has done this as a knuckleball pitcher – one of only two knuckleball pitchers in baseball right now and the subject of a documentary film called “Knuckleball.”

For those who don’t know, the knuckleball is a unique pitch, in that typically baseball pitchers use a combination of velocity and spin to deceive batters trying to hit the pitched ball.  A knuckleball pitcher seeks to pitch the ball with little or even no spin.   As a result, it is even less predictable than a typical pitch.  In addition, it is literally a change of pace.  In a league with fastballs typically thrown at speeds of 95-100 miles per hour, knuckleballers tend to throw their pitches at 65-70 miles per hour.

RA Dickey is a unique knuckleballer in that he throws around 80 miles per hour – faster than most knuckleballers, but still much slower than a typical pitcher.  Even at that velocity, though, it requires less arm strength to throw a knuckleball as opposed to a regular fastball or curveball.  The knuckle ball extends the careers of pitchers who might otherwise be out of baseball.

So, you would think that any pitcher who can’t quite make it to the major leagues – like RA Dickey before this season – or any pitcher who has made it to the majors but has started to lose velocity on his pitches would want to start throwing knuckleballs.  After all, the AVERAGE major league salary this year is over $3M.  An extra season or two in the majors is nothing to sneeze at, financially speaking.

Yet, only eighty pitchers have regularly thrown knuckleballs in major league history.  When you consider that there have been approximately 9,000 pitchers in the history of major league baseball, that’s a pretty insignificant number.  So, why don’t more pitchers try the knuckleball when it could clearly help their careers and make their lives a little bit better?

It seems to me that there are three basic explanations:  (1) You need a mentor or a buddy in order to learn it and master it; (2) it doesn’t come naturally – it feels funny coming off your hand if you’re used to throwing a regular pitch; and (3) it’s considered a less “manly” pitch.  It’s not cool to be a knuckleballer.  It’s quirky.  It’s sneaky.

As I thought about this, it occurred to me that this is not so different from our approach to Jewish observance.  I think that I can make a credible argument that Jewish observance makes our lives a little better.  It gives us set of values for our daily lives, it encourages family time in our busy world, it brings us to an appreciation for nature, it fosters community, it supports us in our darkest moments and so much more.

Yet, people tend to shy away from it because you need a mentor or a buddy, it doesn’t come naturally and it doesn’t always seem cool to be religiously observant.

And so as we come together this Yom Kippur to contemplate our deeds of the past year and consider how we can do better in the coming year, I would like to suggest that we all try the knuckleball.  In other words, instead of just thinking about the easy path or the cool path – take a walk down the Jewish path.

In truth, our word for Jewish law in Hebrew is “halachah” which means path.  This goes hand-in-hand with what I talked about on Rosh Hashanah: people who consider themselves “SBNR” – spiritual but not religious.

Spirituality is extremely important.  If we don’t feel the stirring within us, then there’s no reason go forward.  But once we have the feeling, it is rituals, customs, traditions, holidays and lifecycle celebrations that all contribute to a more fulfilling life.  And learning how to do these things is not so different from learning how to throw a knuckleball.  The big difference is that more than 1% of us can do it.

So, first of all, we have to find mentors and buddies.  One of the interesting things about knuckleballers is that they all stick together – even when they are on competing teams.  Many of them wear the same jersey number as a way of symbolizing their being a part of special group within the league.  Retired knuckleballers are generous with their advice and support for the younger guys.

By virtue of being here today, you have a connection to SJCC.  Maybe your kids are in one of our programs.  Maybe you’ve just moved to the area and you heard about us.  Maybe you’ve been a member for 35 years.  Regardless, as a result of that connection, you have access to mentors.  Barbara Bearg, Stacey David and all our teachers want to get your kids excited about Judaism.  The Cantor and I want to share what we know with anyone who will listen.  In truth, we’re not that picky – we’re happy to share our knowledge with people who don’t want to listen.

If you want to learn more about Judaism – how to make Shabbat, how to keep kosher, how to wave a lulav and etrog when the next Jewish holiday arrives, how to say the Sh’ma, whatever it is – we want to help you make it happen.  The harder part is finding buddies because it’s hard to do this on your own.

It’s hard to show up at services and not see a single one of your friends there – even if everyone there is super nice.  It’s hard to make Friday night a special family time when everybody else you know has exciting plans to go out.  But, if friends decide to do this together – two families having Shabbat dinner together, three families meeting at the synagogue Saturday morning – that’s a whole different story.  Further, families that already do some of these things should reach out to other families to lend support.

If we’re all going to throw the knuckleball instead of the fastball, we all need mentors and buddies.

The second thing to remember is that Judaism – like the knuckleball – doesn’t come naturally – especially if you didn’t grow up doing these things.  Consider Hebrew.  It is a hard language – with completely different alphabet going in the wrong direction. And those “ch”s!!

Then, there’s Kashrut.  I have lived in a kosher home my entire life and still just last week, I mixed up our meat and dairy dishes.  (Have no fear – I caught it in time!)  For someone just starting, it’s incredibly confusing.

And, how about Shabbat?  In today’s world of constant communication, where if we don’t reply to a text message or email within a few minutes, people think we must be in the emergency room, it is unnatural to turn off our phones, computers and tablets for one day each week.  And yet, when we do, we have more time for our partners, our families, ourselves.

And finally, consider tzedakah.  It takes real effort to make time in our lives to do things for others.  Time is our most valuable commodity and we have too little of it.  Yet, Judaism demands that we make time for community service and tzedakah work.  It’s not natural, but it makes our world and our lives better.

So, even though it’s easier to stick to English and the romance languages rather than Hebrew, and it’s easier to ignore the laws of Kashrut eating whatever we like and it’s easier to stay glued to electronic gadgets and it’s easier to focus on our small little part of the world, Judaism challenges to go against the grain and do something that doesn’t necessarily come naturally.

The fastball may come more naturally, but there’s a sense of satisfaction that comes with mastering the quirky knuckleball that you just can’t get from a simple fastball.  It’s the same with Judaism.

Now, if we are going to throw the knuckleball, we have to be ready to be perceived as just a little different.  Knuckleballers have always been some of the most colorful personalities in baseball lore.  They unabashedly march to the beat of their own drum.  I cannot count the number of functions that my family and I have had to miss because of our Sabbath observance, for example.  From birthday parties to school functions, from Bar Mitzvah celebrations to community events, we have had to say ‘no’ and go our own way.

Some people think we are inflexible and some people think we’re interesting. Some people think we’re zealous and some don’t give us a second thought at all.  We think that we are just a little bit different than most folks.  It’s a conversation that we have had with our kids too many times to count, often with tears involved.  But this goes back to something I said earlier – if more people were willing to try it, we’d seem less different, we’d all have more buddies.

The truth is – like pitchers – we can keep going through life throwing fastballs like 99% of the pitchers who have ever thrown a pitch in the major leagues.  But, if we slow down, adjust our grip, find a mentor or a buddy, get over the fact that it doesn’t come naturally and celebrate our quirkiness, then we might just find that we’re better pitchers than we ever imagined.  And our lives are richer and more meaningful than we ever imagined.

The Mets’ season is all but over.  Our season is just beginning.  As we begin this new year of 5773, I look forward to tossing the ball around with you.


L’shanah Tovah,




About Rabbi Avi Friedman

I am the rabbi of Congregation Ohr Shalom - SJCC, a progressive Conservative and traditional congregation. I am also husband to Jodi as well as father to Gabi, Jonah, Jessica and Ilana. I have been a part of the Summit community since 2005.
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