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Sports Lessons

By Zelig Gleicher

We often refer to the serious side of life with sports terminology. For instance: "the game of life," "games people play," and even "war games." Sports can teach us about the serious side of life. You never know how a football will bounce; a good pitcher can throw a ball straight which will curve away from the batter only at the last moment. Life also throws us curves and unexpected bounces along the way. How often do we react to them properly?

I once heard an interesting lesson: A man gets up early in the morning to prepare for a very important business meeting, but everything seems to go wrong for him. He cuts himself while shaving, spills coffee on his shirt at breakfast, and slams the closet door on his fingers in his hurry to get a new shirt. By the time he grabs his briefcase and rushes to the door, he has lost his temper and yelled at his children, his wife, and even the dog.

Imagine if he had found an envelope on his pillow addressed to him the night before. The note inside read: "Dear Yaakov, Tomorrow morning you will cut yourself shaving, spill coffee on your shirt, and slam your fingers in the closet door. Signed: God." When all these things happen, will he still react in such a negative way, or will he keep in mind that God is testing him?

This is how we have to try to face all of life. It isn't a game that we have to win at any cost; rather it is a challenge from God, an opportunity for spiritual growth.

Many sports are played with teams... We know that even though certain players may be in the limelight, every player must do his job for the team to be successful. A quarterback may have a great arm, but if the front line doesn't give him time, he won't have a chance to throw. You may hit a triple in baseball, but if no one drives you in, the game's score will not be affected.

In a way, Judaism is also a team sport. One can't concern himself solely with his personal needs. He must also be aware of the community's needs. The Jewish nation is an entity unto itself, comprising all the Jews who have ever lived and who will live in the future. Every individual makes his or her contribution to the whole, some in a positive way and some, heaven forbid, in a negative way. Some contributions are so great that they have a ripple effect for many generations. For example, if an individual becomes observant, his decision has positive consequences for his children and all his future descendants. Yet the opposite can also happen when an individual decides to leave the path of Torah...

An individual can run his leg of the relay in record time, but the next runner can drop the baton and cause a setback. In the end the Jewish people will reach the finish line, but how many members of this relay team will still be standing, and how many will have dropped out or wandered off?

One social issue which can be seen in moral terms is how society utilizes leisure time. The ancient Romans killed people for entertainment. America turns to sports such as boxing, football, and hockey. For those who don't like to see blood, there is baseball, tennis, and golf.

Sports have become big business. This was not always so. In 1873, Cornell University President Andrew D. White responded to a request that his football team travel to Michigan for a game, "I will not permit thirty men to travel four-hundred miles merely to agitate a bag of wind." Contrast this with the Super Bowl game of 2001, which had an estimated viewing audience of 130 million.

This is not to say that spectator sports have no redeeming social qualities. Sports can contribute to health by supplying individuals with a sense of belonging. They also strengthen the democratic value of equality, with members of all social and economic classes joining hands in the support of their team. There is the opportunity to make the moral distinction between the good guys and the bad. (It is not always so simple, for the bad guys can also be dressed in white.)

It is good practice, for in life too the good guys don't always win. Or maybe the good guys do always win; it is just that our vision is obscured by our subjective desires. In either case, there is always hope that your team will win next year, which helps prevent deep-set depression.

Sports can also teach us how to deal with failure in a positive way. In baseball, a .400 hitter is few and far between. The best hitters hit in the .300s. In terms of the game, these hitters are good. Nevertheless, in mathematical terms, these players fail to get a hit two-thirds of the time. Do they get depressed when they strike out? No! They get back in the batter's box and try again. The value of not giving up is expressed in the verse in Proverbs (24:16), "For a righteous man falls seven times and rises up, but the wicked stumble under adversity."

Our failure as a Torah nation is marked by Tishah B'Av, the Ninth of Av. This is the date that the 12 Spies reported to the people that they would not be strong enough to conquer the land, "...and the people wept that night" (Numbers 14:1). The Talmud says, "That night was the night of the ninth of Av. God said to them: You have wept without cause, therefore I will set [this day] aside for weeping throughout the generations to come" (Taanis 29a).

This failure resulted in our tarrying in the wilderness for 40 years. Finally we conquered and settled the Land. Some 850 year later, we lost the First Temple and were exiled from the Land. We picked ourselves back up and built the Second Temple. Our failure once again caused its loss, 420 years later, and put us in the exile we are still in. We commemorate both losses on Tishah B'Av.

Is this a reason for depression, giving up, or losing hope? Six days after our day of national mourning comes Tu B'Av, the 15th of Av, which the Mishnah states is one of the two happiest days of the year, the other being Yom Kippur (Taanis 4:8). What happened on the 15th? Among them is that the dead of Beitar, who weren't allowed to be buried by Roman decree, were finally buried after a number of years, and miraculously their bodies had not decomposed. This kindness of the Almighty is remembered by the addition of a fourth blessing to Grace After Meals. It was a time when all seemed lost, yet God didn't abandon us.

The same idea applies to Tishah B'Av. The destruction of each of the Temples was an overwhelming loss, yet God didn't destroy us. There were lessons to learn and He gave us another chance...

Reprinted with permission from From "WE THE PEOPLE" - reflections on American history and Jewish thought. Published by Targum Press, Inc. -



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