The Sweetness of Victory and the Spirituality of Sports

15 May 2015
26 Iyar 5775

Shalom Chaverim,

I was sitting in the bleachers of the girls’ softball league championship game yesterday, on a glorious spring afternoon, when our Director of Athletics Sue Johnson turned to me and said, “If we win this, it might be the sweetest championship I’ve experienced since I’ve been at Gann.” The game was a nail-biter through the sixth inning, when our girls, after giving up a two-run lead and going down by two runs in the bottom of the fifth, came roaring back and scored seven runs. They took the lead and never looked back, cruising to our first league championship in girls’ softball!

As our catcher charged the mound to hug our pitcher after the final out, I found myself emotional, so happy for and proud of our girls, who worked so hard to get to this moment. In the final game itself, they stayed mentally tough, coming back from a rough inning in which they gave up their lead, after which many teams might have lost their composure. They exhibited resiliency and determination, keeping their heads high, their spirits positive, and their focus and quality of play elevated. This game will stay with these girls forever, as sports have such a powerful way of shaping character and developing in people essential middot (inner qualities) and life skills such as resiliency, determination, composure, and grit.

Sue Johnson’s comment about “the sweetest championship” is even more inspiring considering that last season we almost had to shut down our softball program because there wasn’t enough student interest. Only 10 girls tried out for the team, barely enough players to field a team on any given day. Instead of becoming demoralized, 10 players showed up for practice day-in, day-out, sometimes having to compete in games without even enough players to field a full team. Their supportive coaches and parents continued to cheer on their effort, regardless of game outcomes. “The few, the proud,” as last year’s team t-shirts read, gutted out a challenging season last year, and yesterday, just one year later, a robust and energetic team of 16 girls piled onto each other in celebration of a well-earned conclusion to a redemptive season. How sweet it was, indeed!

Since I graduated college and my personal spiritual practice shifted from the squash court to the Beit Midrash, I have been passionate about exploring the parallels between sports and religion or spirituality. In this spirit and in honor of our girls’ victory yesterday, I would like to borrow the interpretive technique of the Lubavitcher (Chabad) Rebbe, who comments on spiritual significance of the names of each Torah portion.

This week we conclude the book of Vayikra (Leviticus) with the reading of a double Torah portion, Behar-Bechukotai. The first, Behar, means “On Mount Sinai” and describes the laws of the sabbatical year that Moses received “on Mount Sinai.” The second, “Bechukotai,” means “My laws” and refers to God’s promise to reward those who “follow My laws and observe My commandments” and to punish those who do not.

Leaving aside theological questions about which mitzvot were received on Mount Sinai and about reward and punishment, the juxtaposition alone of these two words, Behar and B’chukotai, has profound significance for both religion and spirituality and sports. On one hand, there is nothing like being on top of the mountain. While the climb can be exhausting, the mountaintop is where we long to be—at the spiritual-emotional peak, close to the Divine, feeling inspired and connected, filled with a sense of awe and wonder. When we get there, we want to hold onto those moments forever.

At the same time, we live in the real world, and we have to come down the mountain. As beings human, not divine, we cannot sustain life at the spiritual-emotional level of the mountaintop. The question is: how do we bring some of the mountaintop down with us, and how can we get back there again? Our “laws and commandments”—daily rituals, practices, and responsibilities—help to structure our daily lives ethically, spiritually, and practically. Now, most practices and even games don’t warrant the excitement of the championship moment, the season-ending, full-team pile-on. Yet, while we long for the glory of the mountaintop, it is the commitment and discipline of living well from day-to-day, moment-to-moment, practice-to-practice, drill-to-drill—it is chukotai and mitvotai (“My laws and My mitzvot”)—that are the blueprint for daily life and the path to getting back up the mountain, however infrequently we might make it there.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Marc Baker


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