My esteemed colleague, Rabbi Dr. Joel Berman, related the following story from his years as a soldier in the IDF:
“One day, I was part of a nine-man team lying in a rare daytime ambush in Southern Lebanon near the Christian town of Hula. We would lie quietly in place, with our guns poised, for many hours. It was mostly boring and quiet, but we had to be ready at all times. There was a rotation where three were able to sleep while the other six remained awake.
“I was lying next to Salach, a singularly skilled and well-trained Druze soldier. He was peering into his pair of binoculars. Suddenly, he handed me the binoculars, cupped his hands to my ear, and whispered, ‘Berman, tistakel v’tagid li mah atah ro’eh – look and tell me what you see.’ I looked and told him that I see a tree. He kicked me in the foot and told me to look carefully again. I did so and replied that I still only saw a tree. This time, he smacked me and told me to look again, and this time to notice a perfectly straight stick going up and down. I looked again and this time I indeed saw a perfectly straight stick moving up and down ever so slightly among the branches. Salach then explained, ‘It is a fact that nothing natural is perfectly straight. If something is perfectly straight, it is man-made. If we see a straight stick in the distance, it clearly means that the enemy is there with a radio and the protruding antenna is what we are seeing.’
“Salach then took out a plastic-covered map, unfurled it, and figured out the exact coordinates of the antenna. He then radioed the coordinates back to our base. Moments later, a shell was shot from Israel at that precise location utterly decimating the enemy.”
It’s an amazing concept. Hashem did not create anything perfectly straight in nature. Rivers, sticks, flower stems, blood flowing through our veins, our bones, etc. – nothing is perfectly linear. Yet, we want our lives to be perfect and we want to plan our lives, and that everything should work out perfectly. But we should note that if nature itself doesn’t follow straight lines, our lives also cannot be perfect. The circuitous route of the trajectory of our lives is the path that Hashem leads us on. It may often be challenging, but it builds and molds us into the great people we are meant to be.
In addition, we are not angels. Angels have nothing to work on, because their path and mission is indeed perfectly straight and predictable. But humans have challenges that force us off our intended paths. An angel is referred to as an omeid – one who stands, in the sense that it cannot grow, while we can use our challenges as opportunities to grow, potentially to levels greater than angels.
With all this in mind, it is intriguing that, regarding the mitzvah of S’firas HaOmer, the Torah states, “U’s’fartem lachem…sheva Shabasos t’mimos tiheyenah – And you shall count for yourself…seven complete weeks they shall be” (Vayikra 23:15). Does the path to Kabbalas HaTorah require perfection and completion? There are so many statements from Chazal lauding the value of t’shuvah, even saying that “T’shuvah preceded the creation of the world” (Midrash T’hilim 90). Is Kabbalas HaTorah contingent on perfect adherence?
In Major League Baseball, there are certain numbers that are hallowed and special. True fans are aware of the significance of two of those numbers: 56 and 2,632.
The number 56 is the number of consecutive games in which Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio got a hit during the 1941 season. What’s not always realized is that, after the streak was snapped, DiMaggio got at least one hit in each of the following 15 games, as well. In 73 games, there was only one game in which he didn’t have a hit. The Yankees went on to win the AL pennant that year by a 17-game margin and beat the Brooklyn Dodgers to win the World Series. DiMaggio was voted the Most Valuable Player in the American League, beating out Ted Williams, who had hit over .400 that season. The second longest hitting streak is 45 games, set by Willie Keeler in 1897.
The number 2,632 is the longest streak of consecutive games played by a player, not only in Major League Baseball, but in any professional sport. That record is held by Cal Ripken Jr. of the Baltimore Orioles, who didn’t miss a game between May 30, 1982, and September 19, 1998. He broke the previous record of Lou “Iron Horse” Gehrig, who had played in 2,130 consecutive games. The third longest streak is 1,307 games, held by Everett Scott.
It is believed that neither DiMaggio’s streak nor Ripken’s streak will ever be broken.
Sometimes we think that to be worth anything, we have to be at our best and feeling spiritual and connected every day. We think we have to be like DiMaggio, getting at least a hit in every at-bat. But the reality is that we don’t feel spiritually charged and energized every day. Does that make us a failure?
There is another type of streak that is different, but no less impressive. It is the streak of Cal Ripken Jr. who showed up ready to perform every day. Such a streak requires endurance and persistence to give it your best, even on days when you don’t feel like it and may be fatigued or burned out. The ability to do so is rooted in a feeling of responsibility, conviction, dedication, and focus on the long-term.
When the Torah states that the days of the Omer must be complete, it doesn’t necessarily mean complete in a “DiMaggio” sense. It doesn’t demand that we suddenly reach perfection and top-level performance. Rather it requires “Ripken” completion – courageously showing up, stepping into the ring and daring greatly. That is the path that must be undertaken to arrive at Sinai to receive the Torah.
If someone missed an entire day of counting the Omer, the halachic consensus is that he can no longer count with a brachah. People in that situation often erroneously say, “I am out!” or “I can no longer count!” That is a big mistake. Although he can no longer count with a brachah, he still performs a mitzvah when he recites the S’firah count for that night.
Nature does not produce perfection, because Hashem does not demand perfection of us. But we are bidden to “show up” and give it our best shot – every day of our lives. Even those days when we don’t feel like being there, we remind ourselves of the great value of suiting up, stepping into the batter’s box, and readying ourselves to do the best we can with whatever life hurls at us.