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Why Sandy Koufax Sat Out the World Series on Yom Kippur

As counterintuitive as it may seem, the power of not-doing possesses a purity and a truth that doing cannot rival. Giving is easy. Doing is easy. Movement is easy. What's difficult is stopping.
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Have you ever considered that true greatness is not in the doing but in the not doing? It's a paradox of life, but who you really are and what you truly hold dear are not so clearly proven by the things you accomplish but by the things you choose to take a pass on.

For example, one of the indisputably greatest pitchers in the history of baseball will always be best remembered for a game he did not play. He wasn't injured. He wasn't suspended. He wasn't holding out to negotiate his contract. His choice not to play was the simple expression of deeply held values.

It was the fall of 1965 and the Los Angeles Dodgers were up against the Minnesota Twins in the World Series. The opening game was scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 6 -- a date with little other significance than happening to fall that year on the Jewish high holiday of Yom Kippur. No doubt, that coincidence would have gone largely unnoted except for the additional fact that the Dodger's star pitcher, Sandy Koufax, also happened to be Jewish. Koufax was not particularly observant, but as he later stated, "There was never any decision to make ... because there was never any possibility that I would pitch. Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish religion. The club knows that I don't work that day."

That Yom Kippur in the Twin Cities, there were Sandy Koufax sightings in synagogues all over town. Everyone was sure that the star pitcher had "davened" in their "minyan." The truth is, however, as insiders will tell you, that Koufax chose to spend the day by himself in his hotel room. Whether he prayed there or not, nobody knows. He never talked about it. Who knows what he did? What we all know is what he didn't do. He didn't pitch.

The Dodgers lost that game 8-2. Future Hall-of-Famer Don Drysdale, who started in Koufax's place, gave up seven runs in the first three innings. It is rumored that when Dodger manager Walter Alston headed out to the mound to take Drysdale out of the game he said, "I know, Skip. Right now you wish I was Jewish, too."

The rest of the story is that Koufax returned to start three of the remaining six games and was named the Series MVP after pitching a shutout in the deciding Game 7.

Yet the legend of Sandy Koufax is more associated with that first game of the series that he didn't pitch than with any of the games that he went on to play. This would be understandable if he were a mediocre player whose only claim to fame was that he missed an important game for religious reasons. But Koufax's skills on the mound are almost mythic. His pitching stats in his last six seasons were mindboggling. To this day his name is included in every discussion of who was the greatest pitcher of all time.

By all rights, the greatness of a pitcher should in his pitching, not in his "not-pitching." But go tell that to history. Not-pitching is Koufax's legacy. To wit, in May of 2010, at a White House event honoring Jewish Heritage Month, President Obama quipped, "Sandy and I have a few things in common. We are both lefties. He can't pitch on Yom Kippur. I can't pitch."

In the same vein, it would be logical to think that a Jewish hero is one who did something great for Judaism. Yet right now, somewhere in Vero Beach, Florida, there is a 75-year-old Jewish man who is not what anyone would consider to be at all religious, and he will always be revered by Jews and non-Jews alike as a hero of the Jewish faith. All for what? Not for something he did for his religion but for something he didn't do because of his religion. The Lubavitcher Rebbe's emissary to Minnesota, Rabbi Moshe Feller, visited Koufax in his hotel room on the day after Yom Kippur and told him, "Sandy, more Jews knew when Yom Kippur was this year because of you not pitching than knew from a Jewish calendar!" I will go a step further and say that more people knew that it was Yom Kippur because Sandy Koufax didn't announce it and didn't pitch than would have known if he did announce it and did pitch. You see, because it's all in the not-doing, not in the doing.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, the power of not-doing possesses a purity and a truth that doing cannot rival. Consider, in the most intimate of our relationships, is our devotion expressed more in what we do for our beloved, or in what we do not do because of them?

Giving is easy. Doing is easy. Movement is easy. What's difficult is stopping.

In our age of information overload, we all give away our attention and our time so easily. Almost anything is deemed worthy of capturing our interest for a moment. We are constantly connecting to people and ideas and things. We embrace a plethora of movements and causes. We are downright promiscuous in our willingness to put ourselves into all sorts of activities that we judge to be important or interesting. But none of that tells us who we really are and what really matters to us. We only discover that which is most real to us when we find that one thing that causes us to stop and take a step back from the rest of the world. What truth remains when all distractions are tuned out and left behind?

Not coincidentally, this is also the deeper meaning of the holiest day of the Jewish year. Yom Kippur is a day of not-doing. We don't eat. We don't work. We disengage from the mundane. It's the most spiritually potent window of time in the Jewish year, and yet we are not trying to accomplish anything. As the mystics explain, the atonement on the Day of Atonement is not an activity that we pursue but rather a natural state of being that ensues. We don't make it happen. We don't even have to let it happen. It happens. And to the extent that we don't "get in the way," it shows us a glimpse of our true selves and our true priorities.

Who am I? What do I believe in? What do I hold dear?

Then, having paused from our doing, we may rejoin the world with our priorities in order.

May we all discover in the not-doing who we truly are, and in knowing who we are, we will know what we really need to do.

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