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Channeling for G-d

Rabbi Avi Shafran

The trial and conviction of Thomas Junta, the Massachusetts father who beat another father to death during a dispute at their sons' practice hockey game should spur some discussion of sports among thoughtful people, including thoughtful Jews.

According to a medical examiner's testimony offered during the trial, Mr. Junta, a 270-pound truck driver, repeatedly punched Michael Costin, a 156-pound carpenter, in the face, rupturing an artery at the base of Mr. Costin's brain and almost severing his head from his neck.

Manslaughter may be a relatively rare outcome of sports-related altercations, but violence itself is another matter. Overseas, soccer matches have often stirred fans to what can only be described as gang warfare, complete with weapons, blood and broken bones. In our own society, bottle, garbage and battery hurling (not to mention insult hurling, violence in its own right) is hardly unheard of, even during games of baseball - one of the contemporary world's more civil sports.

And the more barbaric examples, like the Ur-sport itself, boxing, are openly and unabashedly predicated on brutality and gore. Little wonder some of the "role models" the world of sports has offered in recent years have been poster boys for bad, even murderous, behavior.

Whether sports provide a healthful outlet for "working out" aggression or are themselves merely "violence by other means" can be debated. But, at least from a Jewish perspective, what is certainly interesting is that the idealization of physical competition is utterly absent from Jewish tradition.

There have, to be sure, been Jewish athletes, including professional ones, in modern times. But, over the course of the several millennia prior, sports have traditionally been regarded by Jews as something foreign.

Jews, of course, like all people, are subject to base urges, including competitiveness and aggression. But our religious tradition teaches us that here-and-now urges are to be overcome by force of will when they lead to bad behavior, and that their essences are to be channeled into positive directions. The Talmud has G-d announcing "I have created an evil inclination," and then adding, "I have created the Torah as its sweetener."

The final word in that passage, tavlin, is often mistranslated in this context as "antidote"; but it elsewhere refers to a spice or sweetener that makes food more palatable.

Our religious tradition thus teaches that the inclinations that derive from the animal side of our natures must not be given free rein. But at the same time, it also teaches - and was teaching thousands of years before Freud - that raw human energy can be channeled toward constructive purposes.

Judaism lauds work and looks down on idleness; but it also commands the Sabbath as a day of rest. It insists on sexual restraint; but it also mandates marriage and family life. It frowns upon indulgence but includes festive celebrations. The Torah doesn't deny Jews leisure, pleasure or food; it guides us instead to control our desires, to harness them and express them in clearly prescribed ways, times and places.

A Jew's raw energy, the Torah maintains, is to be channeled into the performance of mitzvot and study of Torah, into acts of kindness and introspection. A moral workout may not tax biceps or quadriceps, but it can be quite exhausting all the same. And healthful, too, in the most meaningful - indeed eternal - sense.

Even as we live and participate in a wider world than our own, we Jews are a people apart. G-d chose us at Sinai and charged us with the holy mission of living special, sublime, lives. In the words of a prayer traditionally recited at the completion of a Talmudic tractate:

"We thank You, our G-d and the G-d of our forefathers, for placing our lot among those who sit in the study hall and. not among those who sit on corners. We arise and they arise. We arise to words of Torah, and they arise to pointless ventures. We labor and they labor. We labor and receive reward, and they labor and do not receive reward."

We channel our energies, in other words, and they channel theirs.


[Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America]



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