Learning Torah Ethics from the Super Bowl

    April 2008 Passover Edition            
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Learning Torah Ethics from the Super Bowl


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Opinion & Society


Ethics of the Fathers, Chassidic Thought, and … Super Bowl XLII

By Yehuda Posnick

One of the fundamental teachings of the Ba'al Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement, is that Divine Providence extends over all things, and that everything that someone sees or hears can be used to derive some ethical teaching. For example, Yisrael Meir HaCohen Kagan, better known as the Chafetz Chaim (1838-1933), said that three major inventions of his time can each teach us a lesson in serving G-d:

  1. The telephone—everything we say here, is heard over there.
  2. The telegraph—every word, has a price.
  3. The train—it adheres to a rigid schedule: if you're a minute late, you've missed it.

A recent sports event which received tremendous publicity, Super Bowl XLII, was said to have been viewed by more people than any previous Super Bowl. Even though every year's Super Bowl is the single sports event viewed by more people than any other, this Super Bowl was distinct. It pitted the heavily-favored New England Patriots, undefeated going into the contest, versus the New York Giants, who, although having had a weak season early on, performed strongly towards the end, chalking up stunning upsets in the playoffs. The telecast was deemed the most-watched Super Bowl in history, with an average of 97.5 million viewers in the U.S., and a record 148.3 million total viewers worldwide tuned into the game. Of the millions that watched the game, I think it is safe to assume that at least one of them is also a reader of The Jewish Magazine, and might find this article enlightening.

There are four lessons which one can derive from the outcome of the contest, all of them based on quotations from the Ethics of the Fathers:

  1. "Do not trust in yourself until the day of your passing." (Ethics of the Fathers, 2:5)
  2. "Recognize his place." (Ethics of the Fathers, 6:6)
  3. "Do not despise any person, and do not denigrate any thing." (Ethics of the Fathers, 4:3)
  4. "Be submissive to an elder, and courteous to the young." (Ethics of the Fathers, 3:15)

Football fact #1: The Patriots went into the game undefeated. The Giants took the lead with only 35 seconds left—if the game would have ended a minute earlier, or if the Giants' drive would have been repelled, the Patriots would have been the first team ever to complete a 19-0 perfect season, and would have been hailed as one of the best teams in football history. And if the Patriots' loss would have come at any time of the regular season, they still would be considered equal to the great teams of the past.

What transpired in the last minute of the last game stripped them of all that: The Patriots' cornerback Ellis Hobbs was deceived on a fake move, leaving the Giants' Plaxico Burress open in the end zone to score the winning touchdown. The Patriot players reflected after the loss, and expressed the sentiment that all of their victories, all the personal records, team records, and league records that they set over the course of the season were--"for nothing".

In Torah: "Do not trust in yourself until the day of your passing." (Ethics of the Fathers, 2:5) The Sages warn us that a person must always be on guard against the guiles of his Evil Inclination. A person may have accumulated a "perfect record" over the course of his life, but even at the end of his life, he can also be "faked out" and succumb, effectively erasing all of his good deeds: The Talmud (Berachot 29a) relates that Yochanan the High Priest in the Hasmonean dynasty had the post of High Priest for eighty years—but in the end of his life became an Sadducee and he ended up denying all of the basic tenets of Jewish Oral Tradition!

But we needn't look at such an extreme case, or so far back in history. The Talmud tells us that if a person regrets his/her good deeds, the credit for the good deeds is also erased:

In the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah, 4a ), it is related how Cyrus II, the ruler of the Persian Empire gave a considerable donation to the needs of the Temple in Jerusalem, but he stipulated that for his donation, the Jews "should pray for the long life of himself and his children." (Ezra 6:10) The implication is that if he would foresee that his empire would crumble in 200 years before the Greek empire, he wouldn't have been so generous. The Talmud concludes that a person may give charity so that the credit should earn him health or success—and he'll even be considered a righteous person for it. But, even if for some reason he'll be denied the sought-after health or success, he mustn't regret the act of giving charity. Regretting a mitzvah erases its effect!

On the other hand, we can find an act of intense repentance performed at the end of someone's life can make reparations for an entire life of misdeeds. The Talmud relates (Avodah Zarah, 17a) that Elazar ben Durdaya was a very dissolute man—that he made it a goal to solicit every prostitute in the world! Upon hearing of just one more he didn't yet add to his list of conquests, he undertook a long journey at great expense, to visit this prostitute as well. When the prostitute made a statement that Elazar ben Durdaya's repentance (if he would ever choose to repent) would never be accepted, he was totally shattered by the statement—in fact, so shattered that he performed an act of repentance that earned him the title "Rabbi", and immediate admission into Paradise!

Mendel Futerfas--an almost-legendary figure among Lubavitch Hasidim for his internment in Soviet prison camps for activities of sustaining Jewish life during the Stalinist regime, and who subsequently taught two generations of yeshiva students used to quip: "Sometimes I give my Evil Inclination a jab; sometimes I take a jab from him--I just hope that the last jab will be the one I give him!"

Football fact #2: Not to say that the Patriots' loss was due to overconfidence—quite the opposite. When learning of the tremendous point spread they were given (they were expected to win by 13 points, which was lowered to 12 points), some Patriots players who played on the 2001 team that upset the St. Louis Rams recalled that the Rams were 14-point favorites over the Patriots then—and nonetheless, the Patriots won then by three points. Despite the fact that they were portrayed as huge favorites, the Patriots identified with another team that was also heavily favored, but lost. The result—the outcome was exactly the same as in 2001—the heavily favored team ended up losing by exactly 3 points, but here the Patriots were the victims, not the victors!

The Giants, on the other hand, had already upset Dallas and Green Bay, and viewed it as plausible that they could add New England to their list of victims. The most vociferous prediction about the Giants' victory was from the Giants' wide receiver, Plaxico Burress—who ended up catching the winning touchdown. He pictured himself as a winner—and so it was! Truly a self-fulfilling prophecy!

In Torah: One of the 48 traits by means of which one acquires Torah is how a person must, "recognize his place" (Ethics of the Fathers, 6:6)—having a proper idea of his true stature. A person shouldn't be arrogant, but he mustn't abase himself either.

It is related in Numbers (Chapter 13) about the disastrous result of Moses sending 12 emissaries to spy out Israel, to see the nature of the land and its inhabitants. The report of ten of the spies upon returning is noteworthy: they say, upon seeing the huge stature of the inhabitants of the land, "And we felt like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we were perceived in their [the native inhabitants'] eyes". First they remark how puny and diminutive they themselves felt in the presence of the inhabitants, and only then do they hear the inhabitants make the same comparison! On the contrary--they should have drawn courage from the fact that they had already managed to leave Egypt in a purely miraculous manner, and they had assurance that the conquest of the land of Canaan would be just as miraculous. Their diminutive self-image had even more dire effects: they infected the entire people at the time with a despair that resulted in their being left in the desert for another 40 years!

People in a position of command must demand respect. We find even rulings in Jewish law to this effect, regarding kings, and Torah scholars:

After King Saul fails to fulfill Samuel's directive in destroying Amalek, and instead listened to the people who wanted to spare the livestock of Amalek, Samuel rebukes King Saul (I Samuel 15:17): "[Why] are you insignificant in your own eyes? You are the head of the tribes of Israel, and have been anointed to be king over them." The king is chosen to lead, and not be led by the people. He is not to be submissive to anyone except G-d (or a prophet speaking in G-d's name). In the Mishna Torah (The Book of Kings and their Wars, Chapter 2:8-9) Maimonides discusses how a king must conduct himself in public:

  • The king mustn't show honor to anyone, such as rising before him
  • The king mustn't address anyone by his title—only by his first name
  • The king must speak to his subjects in a serious and commanding tone.

Maimonides (Laws of Torah Study, 7:13) also points out that Torah scholars must draw the line between being humble on one hand, and demanding respect on the other. This is so that people will respect the dictates of the Torah that the scholar is to represent. If a scholar suffers an insult, he should be forgiving, only insofar that the honor of the Torah is not in jeopardy. If it is, he is allowed to be strict and unforgiving, until properly appeased. Only in this manner will the honor of the Torah be upheld.

Rabbi Yosef Yizchak Shneersohn expressed it as follows, "A person should have an accurate view of his advantages and weak points. To have an eye on his advantages, and act on them, and an eye on his weak points, and rectify them."

Football fact #3a: Owing to the skill of today's players, never can anything ever be ruled out: Another thing that contributes to the shock of the Giants' upset of the Patriots was the fact that so few people at the beginning of the season would believe that this would be the match-up for the Super Bowl. Nonetheless, Michael Strahan, a fifteen-year veteran defensive end with the Giants gave an interview in mid-season in which he was asked if this will be his last year. He replied, "Maybe not—if we win the Super Bowl." This was said at a time when the Giants were fighting for just a playoff spot, and a long way to go from the Super Bowl.

Football fact #3b: Much was said about the Patriots' offense throughout the year—having scored the most points in a single year than any other team ever: their resourceful quarterback, and their quick and elusive receiving corps and running backs.

But little of their success was attributed to the most inconspicuous part of the offense—the offensive tackles that provide an impregnable wall of protection for the quarterback to deliberate. When the Giants were able to penetrate through this wall like none of the previous opponents, the Patriots' offense was effectively shut down.

In Torah: "Ben Azzai said: Do not despise any person, and do not denigrate any thing —there is no man that does not have his hour, and there is no thing that does not have its place." (Ethics of the Fathers, 4:3)

In I Samuel 16:12, it is related how David was anointed to be the successor of King Saul, to the total surprise of David's father and brothers, and even the prophet Samuel himself. David's defeat of Goliath in the next chapter was also totally unexpected, seeing that Goliath was an experienced warrior, and David had no martial training at all. The rise of David to be the king of Israel and the head of an eternal dynasty of leaders of the Jewish nation was totally unexpected—yet nonetheless, we are assured that, even when there is no formal king of Israel, a descendent of David has a position of power and leadership, such as Hillel or Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, until the coming of the Messiah.

Football fact #4: This is more a human interest note than one about football: Junior Seau is a linebacker for the Patriots with the bittersweet title, "one of the best players in the game never to win a Super Bowl". At age 39, it couldn't be expected that he'll be active in professional football much longer. The press made much of his anticipation of finally winning a Super Bowl this year, and his subsequent disappointment. Nonetheless, a day after the tearful loss, he was asked if he considers retiring. He replied something to the effect, "I can't quit now—I'm having too much fun!"

In Torah: "Be submissive to an elder, and courteous to the young." (Ethics of the Fathers, 3:15) It's obvious that we have what to learn from our elders—not so obvious that we have something to learn from those younger than us. Nonetheless, Rabbi Zusia of Anapoli, one of the famous Chassidic masters, said that there are three things that one can learn from the conduct of a child:

  1. When it hurts him, he cries out to his father (so we should cry out to our Father in Heaven, if we should suffer some hurt).
  2. He is always active.
  3. If he falls down, he always bounces back up.

Rabbi Zusia tells us that even child's play is hardly "child's play"—we can take sundry things in our personal lives and derive from them much deeper lessons, even from football games.


from the April 2008 Passover Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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