Some things happen in a moment. The blur of a fast ball as it zooms over home plate. The crack of a bat against a ball. The slide into first. Winning the World Series. The decision to bring a black man into white baseball.
Some things take time. Mastery of a sport. Becoming a man of character. Becoming a player of note. Getting to the World Series. Getting a black man to be accepted in white baseball.
Patience is not the legacy of our time. We of the overnight sensations, the 140-character manifestos, the instant gratification; we of the right to self-expression, the right to anti-establishment, the right to self-righteousness. We are not a patient group. Nor are we forgiving. We are demanding. We are easily bored, easily hurt, and easily indignant. Could we have walked the path of Jackie Robinson? Our Facebook statuses alone would have undone us.
There is a lesson in 42 and it is not one our world today can easily understand. It is the lesson of stand tall and keep walking. It is the lesson of focus on doing what you’re doing and trust someone else to get your back. It is the lesson of work hard and suffer privately. It is the lesson of emor me’at v’aseh harbeh – say little and do much (Pirkei Avot 1:15). The Internet generation is a demolition generation and the lesson of Jackie Robinson is the lesson of water on a rock.
I know what you’re thinking. As Jews, don’t tell us about silence, about patience. We patienced ourselves to the Auto da-Fés. We silenced ourselves to the gas chambers. We have been water on a rock for two thousand years and maybe it’s time to bring the explosives in.
There are many battles on many fronts. Jackie Robinson opened a door into Major League Baseball; he didn’t overturn Jim Crow. Then again, he didn’t have to because, after a while, a generation grew up that felt a little foolish cheering on a black player and refusing him entry into a restaurant. Hard to toast a man who isn’t allowed to drink with you.
And, more importantly, a nation grew up and realized that the only thing that should matter in baseball is how well a man can play baseball. Jackie Robinson got a chance to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers because he was a black man who Branch Rickey wanted to bring in to change history. But Jackie Robinson played for the Brooklyn Dodgers because he was a good ball player who Branch Rickey wanted to bring in to improve his team.
Throughout 42 Robinson asks Rickey to explain himself – why was he taking the risk he was taking – why was he so determined to change the colour of baseball. But no one asked Robinson why he agreed to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers. No one had to. The reason Robinson agreed to play for the Dodgers was the same reason he played for the Montreal Royals, for the Kansas City Monarchs, for UCLA – Jackie Robinson was a ball player and a ball player plays ball. And a ball player doesn’t say no when he’s invited to play that ball in the Major Leagues.
We, as a species, cling to hatred and prejudice for far too long. It is one of our least attractive qualities. But we also have an admiration for excellence. We shouldn’t underestimate that as an instrument of change.
Should it be the case that all human beings be treated well, without prejudice and disregarding stereotypes? Yes. Words should not be spoken that bring a good man to tears; Laws should not be written that make a good woman feel worthless. The sanctity of life, any life, should be preserved.
But greatness? Greatness should be respected. Because greatness is hard work. Greatness is time and effort. It is a life of sweat and sacrifice. It cannot be achieved in the span of a YouTube video or a Blog post. There is no glamour in doing a job well until the job is done. And yet, we should realize that the moments that we think indicate greatness are nothing compared to the greatness it takes to make those moments. That is the greatness of years.
Jackie Robinson had many moments. Taking the field at Ebbets Field for the first time. Hitting a home run. Stealing home plate. Standing silent next to Ben Chapman for a photo op.
Those moments document his greatness but they are not what make him great. What makes him great are all the other moments. The moments that added up into hours and days and weeks and months and years. Moments that had nothing to do with being a figure of political change. Moments invested in becoming a man of character and a player of note.
Sometimes indignity demands violent reactions. Sometimes we must fight to protect a right to be. But, unfortunately, more and more often today, the right to be has overtaken the responsibility to be something. And we have sacrificed our own dignity for the sake of it.
This movie reminds us of the other path. The quieter path. The path of patience and fortitude, of effort and dedication. The path that one cannot clear in a single leap.
Sometimes, the best way to achieve change is slowly. At the speed at which a novice becomes a scholar; a rookie becomes a veteran. To the beat of practice makes perfect. To the steady steps of the dignified climb to greatness.
Jackie Robinson reminds us all that sometimes your enemy is most easily defeated when you are too busy pursuing your goals to bother fighting him at all. At a time when we are so quick to have something to say, and we have every kind of soapbox available on which to say it, a time when every person feels entitled to the spotlight and success can never come quickly enough, I think we should consider shutting up for a couple of hours and watching someone earn his place in history with the hard-won convictions of his character, the silent weight of his actions. With the patient effort of his years.
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