6 February 2015
17 Shevat 5775
Early this week I received an email from a friend, someone I consider a chavruta (learning partner), about leadership and life. He was reflecting on the Patriots Super Bowl victory and, more broadly, on the extraordinary nature of team.
“If you listen to what everyone is saying,” he wrote, “Malcolm Butler (the player who made the final interception in the end zone to save the game for the Patriots) is the hero, and Pete Carroll (the Seahawks coach who called that final passing play) is the goat. But is it really like this? I think (the real story is) all of the unsung players in the game, for example, the Patriots offensive line that allowed only one sack and enabled Brady to throw four touchdowns. What is it like for Nate Solder (offensive lineman) to read the entire Boston Globe today and not see his name mentioned once? This is my thought: (To be part of a team is) to have the humility to be a huge contributor and not get any of the credit. Not to ask for credit, or headlines, or even a mention, any of the time. So many people go through life this way. These are the true heroes of the game.”
My friend used the example of Nate Solder, but he could have gone further. How about all of the players who didn’t even get into the game? Or all of the coaches, trainers, staff, and others who don’t even get uniforms, but who show up every day, give it everything they’ve got, and, in the immortal words of the great Coach Bill Belichick, “do their jobs”? They might not see their names in the newspaper, but every one of these people will receive a World Championship ring, not just Malcolm Butler or Tom Brady. The greatness of the Patriots and the wisdom of “do your job” are that, when it comes to a team, the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts. Each individual person and contribution, no matter how large or how small, have infinite worth because they are interwoven and integrally connected to something larger than themselves.
Two of the most formative experiences of my life, especially during high school, were team sports and theater, which has so much in common with team sports. From these experiences I learned and deeply internalized the ethos of “do your job”, and, as my friend wrote, I came to understand who the real heroes are. I learned about work ethic, discipline, commitment, self-sacrifice, and how to win with grace and how to lose with dignity.
Through these experiences I also came to understand the profound existential and spiritual concept of covenantal community. My students tease me for using the word “community” so much, which means they know how much it means to me! On one level my passion for community flows from my love of people and my belief in Tzelem Elokim, the sparks of Divine and infinite worth with which every human being was created. On another level my passion for community comes from the belief, shaped by my personal experiences, that, in spite of the infinite value of each individual, we are truly self-actualized when we transcend ourselves, when we take ourselves out of the center and build relationships with others, relationships that are defined by shared experiences of and commitments to values, ideas, and aspirations that are greater than any one of us.
While I would not necessarily have labeled it this when I was younger, “covenantal community” has been part of my life and has shaped the person I have and continue to become since a very early age. Perhaps, then, it is no coincidence that the very first chapter of Torah I studied with seriousness and depth was Exodus 19, the story of the Maamad Har Sinai (revelation at Mount Sinai) that we read this week. In so many religions, revelation and prophecy are intensely personal experiences, and God is found in solitude. If you want to experience God, you need to go up on a mountaintop or into the desert. At Mount Sinai and for the Jewish People, however, God spoke the opening words of the Ten Commandments to an entire community, together. Each person hears those words according to his or her unique capabilities, in a way that only he or she can hear. Each person, so to speak, does his or her job. At the same time, the instructions are clear: no one should break forth toward the mountain during this experience. No one should mistakenly believe that this is about me. No, this is about us, about we. Only when we are committed and connected to one another and to a purpose that we all know and feel is greater than ourselves will the Divine dwell among us.
This is what it means to be part of a team, whether on the ball field or on the stage, in the classroom or in the workplace. This is what it means to be part of a covenantal community.
Rabbi Marc Baker