27 January 2012
3 Shevat 5772
Walking through the school one afternoon this week, I observed a small moment during a girls’ basketball practice that had great meaning to me. It was toward the end of the practice with one girl on the foul line shooting, others lining the key to rebound, and one girl standing under the basket. The girl shooting foul shots was struggling to make a shot. It looked to me as if she were the final player to shoot and that the rest of the players were waiting for her to make her shots so they could move on to the next stage of their practice. I felt some tension building with each shot that the player missed, and I watched carefully to see how the other players would respond.
At this practice was a combination of varsity and junior varsity players, girls of all grades and various skill levels, which made me see that this was one girls’ basketball program, one community. It was particularly poignant because the foul shooter appeared to be a junior varsity player and several of the players rebounding for her and cheering her on were varsity players. Other members of the team gathered behind this player, shouting words of encouragement from half-court. What was most impressive was the positive energy that grew with each foul shot. No player rolled her eyes, expressed a negative comment, or showed frustration. On the contrary, the players proactively rebounded, fed the ball back to the shooter, clapped, and affirmed their support of their teammate, as if they understood that this could be any one of them and believed that their collective positive energy could help will her to make a shot.
Eventually, the player made two foul shots, and the team moved on to running sprints. What I saw reminded me that simple moments like this can actually teach profound life lessons. In this case, the girls were living out values that are core to teamwork, collaboration, and community: especially at a time when one of us is struggling, we are in this together. Her misses were their misses, and her success was their success.
As I reflect on the life lessons sports can teach, I am reminded of some of the laws governing the eating of the korban Pesach (Passover offering) and the Passover Seder, about which we read in this week’s Parshat Bo. These laws offer a beautiful illustration of how, in Jewish tradition, much like on a sports team, seemingly small rules and rituals can teach and reinforce the big messages and core values. Every household or community must take its own lamb for the korban Pesach. Every member of the household or community must contribute, and every individual must partake. Unlike on a Shabbat or other holiday, when one might leave one meal to visit another, on Passover we stay put, stay present, stay together for the entire experience. In the words of the JPS Etz Hayim Torah commentary (Exodus 12:4): “By means of this sacrificial meal, kinship ties are strengthened, family and neighborly solidarity is promoted, and communion with God is established.”
The Korban Pesach, like foul shots at the end of a basketball practice, is a democratizing ritual. It brings families and communities together. In our moment of newfound freedom and independence, which could so easily result in radical individualism or even anarchy, the Torah reminds us, commands us, to be in this together. The message of team sports is the message of Judaism and of Jewish education: This is not just my story, it is our story. It is not just my experience, it is our experience. I am responsible not just for my future. I am part of our future— the collective future of our family, our community, our people.
Rabbi Marc Baker