A lesson of Sports and Torah: Making the ordinary extraordinary
We have a lot of sports metaphors in this week’s parsha. First and foremost we have the description of the Red Heifer, which happens to have been my high school mascot (going 20 years strong). We talk about animal sacrifice- one key animal is the GOAT, or for sports enthusiasts, the “Greatest of of All Time”; Moses “hitting the rock” sounds like either a curling play or something that happened in the WWE. Maybe the greatest sports pun of our torah portion is the story of those who have touched a dead body, aka those who have been “near death.” The torah states that these individuals are anointed with fresh water from a vessel” – Mayim chaim el kelly. This could be in reference to the “near death” experience the Buffalo Bills had 24 years ago, when second-string signal caller Frank Reich, subbing for an injured Jim Kelly, led The “Greatest Comeback in NFL History”, as the Buffalo Bills overcame a 32-point deficit, near death, to defeat the Houston Oilers in their 1993 playoff matchup.
So sports, therefore, become a natural connector to the stories of the bible. For some, sports have a more accessible set of liturgy- the rules of the games are fairly straightforward (and we know why they exist), We are mesmerized by the individual feats. We kvell in success and are filled with tzuris in times of great angst. Above all, we are moved by the storylines that trascend the Xs and Os of a game.
I grew up hearing “Havlicek stealing the ball“, watching old footage of Flutie’s Hail Mary and Carlton Fisk willing the ball fair; seeing Bobby Ohr fly through the air. THat’s Boston for you. These were photographs on a wall that told a story of our people. But I didn’t live through them. I more vividly remember Kordell Stewart to Michael Westbrook’s Hail Mary connection propelling Colorado over Michigan, Joe Carter’s series clinching home run for the Toronto Blue Jays, Bryce Drew’s miracle shot versus Ole Miss, and Brett Hull’s controversial series clincher for the Dallas Stars. Removed from earlier great moments, The winning guarantee was not Joe Namath’s Super Bowl III decree but Mark Messier’s Stanley Cup finals pledge.
Each of these moments de-emphasize the journey, focusing on those final few seconds. How we perform in the clutch final two minutes is somehow more heroic than how we perform for the first 46. A horrific display of athletic talent can be redeemed through one magical moment that we lift up higher than the sum of the work. And vice versa, a glorious career may be clouded by not having won the big game.
This past Super Bowl, a tale of two halves, is a perfect example. A few weeks ago, my family visited Disneyworld’s Hollywood Studios. While participating in the Frozen Sing-A-Long, one of the actors made an Atlanta Falcon’s joke, referencing “28-3”, the lead the Falcons had over the New England Patriots. For Patriots fans, the 28-3 stat line references the largest comeback in Super Bowl history, not how poorly they played for most of the game. For Falcons fans, it reflects a failure to close out the game rather than how they outperformed the Patriots in every way for the earlier parts of the game. How we do in the big moment seems to matter so much more.
Moses’ big moment comes in this torah portion. He’s almost at the finish line. After hearing the complaints of the Israelite people for yet another time, Moses proclaims
“Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank. (NUmbers 20:10-11)
The story focuses on disobeying God’s command to speak to the rock. But we’ve been here before. In Exodus 17, the people complain, and God instructs Moses to hit the rock; out came the water. Moses ignored God’s new decree because he knew what worked the first time. He took the shortcut. But something else changed between the two narratives. Moses rebukes the people- “Listen you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” reminds me of Russell Crowe’s line from the movie Gladiator:” Are you not entertained?”
Rashi and Ramban debate the sin of Moses. One says it was the act of striking the rock, the other saying it was this line, “Listen you rebels” Yet they are intertwined. The Kedushat Levi contends that it is a total lack of patience with the people that led Moses to sell them sort, rather than uplifting the people. He insists that ordinary people can and indeed must be raised to the highest rung.
For my own sensibilities, more than the clutch playoff performance, I am often moved by the mundane sports moment that suddenly becomes extraordinary. A preliminary race, a regular season game, takes on new meaning.
As the Baseball Hall of Fame puts it:
It was July 1, 1945 (72 years ago today) – less than eight weeks after Germany’s surrender ended the European war and a little more than two months until the end of the battle in the Pacific. Hank Greenberg, who entered the Army Air Corps four years earlier in May of 1941, stepped to the plate in the bottom of the eighth inning of Game 1 of a Tigers vs. A’s doubleheader. It was his first game in the majors since his discharge two weeks prior, and Greenberg was already 0-for-3.
No one – not even the two-time American League MVP himself – knew for sure if a player could return from war and regain his previous form.
But with one swing – a blow that sailed into the left-field stands at Briggs Stadium and electrified the crowd of 47,729 fans – Greenberg answered the all the questions.
The heroes of baseball were on their way home.
An ordinary game, an ordinary moment, became extraordinary. Greenberg, not only as a baseball star, but a Jewish baseball star, returning from the atrocities of WWII to lift up an ordinary July 1 day.
Another favorite sports moment comes from Barcelona, 1992. Sprinter Derek Redmond blows out his hamstring in the semifinal heat of the 400meters. Grimacing from the pain, Redmond hobbles on one leg as he makes the turn around the track, determined to finish the race. His father jumps his way through security to the track, helping his son finish the race with arms draped around one another. It becomes a symbol of determination, of the love a father has for a son, of perseverance through adversity.
A few years ago, a number of high school and collegiate videos went viral for showcasing an opponent helping out the other side. These are the examples of greatness when you least expect it. A simple act of sportsmanship, like carrying your opponent around the base path after they’ve torn their ACL, carrying your teammate across the finish line, we remember those moments long after you remember the rest of the stat sheet. These sports moments are a manifestation of the credo to have faith in people.
The ordinary becoming the extraordinary combats our highlighting of the failures when we expect greatness. But for every Lance Armstrong or Ben Johnson, there is a Derek Redmond to lift us up. For every person who shaves points and cuts corners, we have teammates who carry their fallen friend on their backs.
We are people of the book- Am Hasefer. The book, the torah, is a collection of laws, of does and don’ts. But it is also a parable, a collection of stories. Even this week’s torah portion, Chukat, taken from the root “Khok” (meaning law), we are driven to the narrative rather than the list of instructions. And so if we are truly a people of the book, we are also bound by the stories we read, the insights gleaned. We learn from Moses not only from his great leadership, but from the times when he comes up short. We learn that Moses is punished not only for his lack of faith in God’s instruction, but more importantly, his lack of faith in his people. We glorify the greatest feats, but we must remind ourselves that the ordinary can become extraordinary through faith in another. In believing in one another, our moments on this earth become more memorable; our marks more indelible than we could have ever imagined.
Hazzan Holzer’s Top 10 Biblical Sports Comparisons
- Mr. October = Kohein Gadol, The high priest (High Holidays, Sukkot, Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah)
- Kerri Strug (she scored a perfect 10) = Minyan of a routine
- Miracle on Ice = defeating the Egyptians at the Sea of Reeds
- Kirk Gibson’s World Series home run = teaches that you can really learn all of Jewish thought and practice “on one foot”
- Tebow’s “The Promise” = Ruth’s “The Promise” to Naomi
- Buster Douglass vs. Mike Tyson = David vs. Goliath
- Broadway Joe’s Super Bowl III guarantee = God’s decree that Abraham’s decendants will be as numerous as the stars
- UCONN women’s basketball 111 game winning streak = “It rained for 40 days and 40 nights”
- Bill Buckner = the scapegoat (or the sacrificial lamb)
- Former Jaguars GM Gene Smith = one of the 10 scouts who described the land as being filled with giants while we were grasshoppers