29 January 2016
19 Shevat 5776
One of my earliest passions in life was competitive sports. From a young age, I played many sports, but since I was not blessed with great athletic talent, it became clear to me that the length of my “career” in most of them (soccer, basketball, baseball) would be short. However, I had the extraordinary privilege of playing competitive squash in college. This was one of the most formative experiences of my life and helped me understand more clearly how sports and athletic competition, in particular, are a laboratory for shaping character and learning life lessons.
As a young adult, I began studying Jewish texts, the philosophy and wisdom of our tradition, and the philosophy of religion, more broadly, and came to see remarkable parallels between sports and Judaism. Recently, Gann’s Director of Athletics Pam Roecker and I had the opportunity to write an article about these parallels. I am happy to share it with you here.
This past week offered those of us from New England a painful example of the many lessons in life and spirituality that sports can teach us. Shortly after the dramatic and disappointing finish to the Patriots/Broncos game, my son and football chavruta (learning partner) vented his frustration.
“Gostkowski,” he said with disgust. “What?” I responded. “Gostkowski cost us the game,” he clarified. “If he hadn’t missed that extra point, we would have tied it up at the end. He blew it.” I sympathized with my son’s need to identify who was to blame for the loss, especially in the heat of the moment. I also tried to explain to him that, while it was not only uncompassionate to turn on one of our best players because of one mistake, it also seemed like a misunderstanding of what really went wrong in the game. But it wasn’t only my son. The next morning on sports radio caller after caller argued about who was to blame for the loss: “Brady played his worst gave ever.” “The offensive line was terrible.” And so on.
Later in the day I texted a friend and colleague in athletic education about this, and her response summed up what I wanted to teach my son and what I hoped angry Patriots fans understood: “Win as a team, lose as a team,” she wrote.
This seems so simple and even trite, yet it is a profound lesson about sports and about teamwork, collaboration, leadership, and community. Personal accountability and individual contribution are, indeed, important values and essential to any group’s success.
At the same time, what defines a true team or community is the notion that the collective identity and collective experience of the whole transcends any one individual part. Paradoxically, then, when we strive for shared goals and aspirations, our successes and our failures are both the result and responsibility of each one of us and of no one of us. To blame an individual for a team loss, then, is to misunderstand the functional and existential nature of team and community.
The Patriots picked a good week to remind us of this lesson, for the Torah portion of Yitro contains the story Ma’amad Har Sinai, the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. One of the most important and inspiring ideas that Judaism has taught the world is the notion of a covenantal community. In so many spiritual traditions, revelation or the spiritual experience is intensely personal, whether an individual goes off into the desert or up onto a mountaintop. But the Sinai experience is unique. The Israelites experience revelation and receive the Torah together. They stand at Mount Sinai as “one person, with one heart,” our Rabbis teach us. And God is very clear in his directions to Moses: “Tell them that not one individual should charge toward the mountain and touch it.” If one person breaks ranks and thinks “this moment is about me”, it will jeopardize the entire spiritual enterprise.
In Judaism God’s covenant is not with a set of individuals but rather with a community of people who understand that, while each of them is created uniquely in the divine image, they also are bound up with one another by virtue of their collective relationship with something much larger than themselves—spiritual experience, history, ethics and values, hopes and dreams.
In a world so often consumed by individualism and pursuit of personal success at all cost, for both the good of our society and the well-being of our children, we need the next generation to understand and internalize this value of covenantal community. I hope that our children will learn it, not only from the Patriots but also from the profound wisdom of their Jewish tradition. We win as a team, we lose as a team, and we receive and live out Torah as a team.
Rabbi Marc Baker