Felix, Melky, and Kosher Fish

After several weeks in Israel, last week, I once again went through a bit of culture shock upon my return to America. The headlines in the respective newspapers of the two countries are so vastly different! Israelis are of course fixated on the Iranian threat, while American newsmen prophesy about the upcoming elections.

Here in Seattle, last week’s topic was the hot summer weather. And at the top of the headlines: Felix’s Perfect Game.

Until this past week, I had never heard of the concept of a perfect game. Back in my home and native land (Canada) hockey and football are popular; we Canadians have minimal interest in baseball.  But I am now enlightened. I now know that a Perfect Game is not synonymous with a no-hitter. In a perfect game, the pitcher retires each and every batter, without even giving up a walk! By the middle of the eighth inning in the Seattle-Tampa Bay matchup, Felix Hernandez had faced and disposed of 24 consecutive batters. The announcer declared : “One inning until immortality”.

After the contest, the New York Times reported:

“Hernandez Latest to Achieve Perfection, to Fans’ Delight.”

Rabbi Chanan Morrison reviews the approaches of Rambam and Rabbeinu Bachaye on man’s striving for perfection:

According to Maimonides, human perfection is attained though the faculties of reason and intellect. Our goal is to gain enlightenment and knowledge of the Divine, through the study of Torah and metaphysics…..By hiding his face at the burning bush, Moses lost a golden opportunity to further his understanding of the spiritual realm. If our fundamental purpose in life is to seek enlightenment, Moses’ demonstration of humility was out of place.

The author of Chovot HaLevavot (‘Duties of the Heart’), however, wrote that our true objective is the perfection of character traits and ethical behavior….What Moses gained in sincere humility and genuine awe of Heaven at the burning bush outweighed any loss of knowledge. Since the overall goal is ethical perfection, Moses’ action was proper, and he was justly rewarded with a radiant aura of brilliant light, a reflection of his inner nobility.

In the sports and entertainment-focused society that is 21st century America, we vicariously live through the achievements of great athletes. As much as we admire those who excel in the realms of the intellectual and ethical, the Perfect Game of Felix Hernandez is often the closest we come to internalizing the exhilarating drive for perfection.  I think I have watched the final pitch of the game, Felix’s flinging his arms heavenward, at least a dozen times. Though I try to avoid clichés, it was truly….. a magical moment.


We are now in Hodesh Elul, less than a month before Rosh Hashanah. It’s a time of reflection and self-assessment: We each have to ask ourselves how far we have come in connecting to G-d, whether through the intellectually challenging and spiritually uplifting study of Torah, or through our Mitzvah performance.

Question: How close have we come to connecting to G-d, the ultimate Perfection?

This past week’s Torah portion was Re’eh. One aliyah is devoted to the laws of Kashrut; specifically: the signs that differentiate kosher from non-kosher animals, including cattle and wild animals, birds and fish.

Our classical commentaries have struggled to understand the significance of the criteria the Torah sets forth: Why do cattle have to possess split hooves and chew their cud? Why do fish need fins and scales?

A unique approach to the question of kosher fish appears in the works of the late great Lubavitcher Rebbe: Back in 1941, the Rebbe explained:

As the armor that protects the body of the fish, scales represent the quality of integrity, which protects us from the many pitfalls that life presents. A man of integrity will not deceive his customers, in spite of the financial profits involved. He will not lie to a friend, despite the short-term gain from doing so. He will not cheat on his wife, in the face of tremendous temptation. Integrity means that one has absolute standards of right and wrong and is committed to a morality that transcends one’s moods and desires. Integrity preserves our souls from temptation. Fins, the wing-like organs that propel fish forward, represent ambition. A healthy sense of ambition, knowing one’s strengths and wanting to utilize them in full, gives a person the impetus to traverse the turbulent sea of life and to maximize his or her G d-given potential. It propels us to fulfill our dreams and leave our unique imprint on the world.

Rabbi Yosef Jacobson cites the Talmudic principle that all fish that have fins also have scales. But the reverse is not the case:

Symbolically, this means that a human being who possesses ambition but lacks integrity is “unkosher.” Such a person may be full of confidence, driven to make an impact on society. Yet educating ambitious and confident children does not guarantee their moral health.

As we strive for perfection in our professional and personal lives, as we exercise those fins that propel us forward, we cannot run roughshod over those values and behaviors that preserve our integrity. This message is a meaningful approach to the new year. The tension between integrity and ambition is quite evident in baseball. One theme that came out in the wake of Felix’s perfect game was his personal integrity and commitment to be a team player and a leader:

“Felix knows the game and he respects the game,” Seattle manager Eric Wedge said. “He’s our leader. To get 27 outs like that, you need a little bit of luck. But he also has the intangibles that separate him from the rest. That’s the kind of teammate he is.”

This stands in sharp contrast to another Major league player. Ironically, on the exact same day as Felix pitched his perfect game – August 15 – Giant’s outfielder Melky Cabrera was suspended 50 games without pay after testing positive for high levels of testosterone, suggesting usage of performance-enhancing drugs. He admitted using a banned substance and accepted the suspension. One of Cabrera’s associates purchased a website for $10,000 and faked its contents in a way that would have allowed Cabrera to challenge his suspension by claiming that the positive test was caused by a substance sold through the website. However league officials and federal investigators used forensics to trace that website back to Cabrera. (Wikpedia).

Cabrera’s suspension is predicted to seriously harm the Giants as the playoffs approach.

Using the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s framework, Felix Hernandez could be seen as someone whose scales are in place; he has a team-centered focus that serves as a springboard for his “fins” to thrust him forward. Melky Cabrera is preoccupied with his own success, with a focus on “fins” over “scales”….

(I couldn’t resist):


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