This past Sunday and throughout the week, I have been witness to the unbridled joy of so, so many people on the historic Superbowl win by the Philadelphia Eagles over the “mighty” New England Patriots. The joy I saw was expressed by all levels of society-from die-hard sports fans to people of faith, including many Talmudic scholars and Congregational Rabbis that I know, as well as others who one might never see at a game-or even a sports bar. How can this be understood? How can so many people care so much about something that in the scheme of things, appears to be so unimportant and trivial?
Of course you’ll say: who is Shalom Rubanwoitz to say the Super Bowl isn’t important? But even if you argue beautifully as to the importance of sports in general and of the relevance of the Super Bowl-I might be able to understand that in global, “macro” terms. But how does an appreciation of the contribution of sports to society explain the personal, “micro” joy and exuberance over the Eagles’ win by someone who is normally apathetic about anything sports, has no affiliation to either team- like some of our good friends who rarely venture East of Lincoln Boulevard, ensconced in their techie environment, breaking only for Yoga or a run on the beach? Well-you get the point I hope. How can a Super Bowl bring out such “Simcha”, excitement and interest in people for whom the pastime most days inspires zero passion?
This Parasha of Mishpatim helped me crystallize my theory on this. I believe that it’s an inherent spiritual desire of all of us to be “on the side” of something, to STAND for something. And here is a controversial statement (made without resort to any statistics): I think that the less people “stand” for things, the more they will be involved in pastimes like sports (where you “get” to take a side), and the more one’s life represents “standing up for things”-the less need, or interest exists to meet the “need to take a stand” by involvement in things like sports.
If you choose to accept any of this theory, you might still challenge me: To accomplish the “partisan” need, why must it be sports? one can get involved in a myriad of issues or spheres that are up for grabs. People get involved in politics, argue about positions, become partisan, seek and take up causes and issues on all sorts of topics. But if this theory is true, why would sports be “davka”, specifically the arena (NPI) where this need is met?
This is where Parashas Mishpatim comes in. I was always thrown a bit when noticing how the laws and Mitzvos related to governing civil society -so many of which have crept their way into pretty much all of the western world and much of the ancient world-are the first to be detailed after our receiving the Torah-which “happened” last week in Parshas Yisro. Why not start the “review of the details” with uniquely Jewish laws and commandments- those areas of Torah that clearly make us unique among the nations of the world. Civil law is something all people are commanded to obey and uphold through courts and “Mishpat”. That area is the least Jewish aspect of the Torah, is it not?
Perhaps the idea is: The “Bet Din”, the court, the justice system, provides for us that same opportunity “taking up sports”. To take sides, to “stand” for something. Yet with Mishpatim, with a court and a Bet Din, we do this with life itself! Individual rights, causes of justice-things which really matter! A Bet Din, a Jewish court is called “Elokim”, a reference to Hashem himself. In so many words, Reb Yisroel Salanter OB”M, the father of the Mussar movement said it best. “All of life is a tightrope. A fight between death on one side and life on the other. We must keep this vision alive with every breath, step and action we take. We can never remain status-quo and stagnant. We are either going up or down. We are always faced with choosing either the side that brings us light, or that which leads us into darkness. This exercise is the life-blood of our Neshama, it is the essence of our existence”. The Torah thus gives Mishpatim-the original “Adversarial Legal System”, marquee placement. It’s the first area of Torah we delve into after receipt of the Ten commandments. This is the Torah’s “plasma for the soul”, the constant reminder that we need to engage with issues of right over wrong, life or death.
What does this have to do with Sports enthusiasm? Many have “sourced” modern day sports to the Olympic culture of ancient Greece. But when highlighting the nature-and violence) of the American Football tradition, my good friend and writer Yaakov James Mosher reminded me of the stark similarities football has with not with Grecian Olympics but with Roman Gladiators. With the Gladiators, every moment was a step towards death… or survival. So maybe….engaging with the descendant of this “life and death” exercise is actually an opportunity for so many of us to “walk Rabbi Salanter’s tightrope”, to allow our soul to experience the primordial battle of good vs. evil. To feel life as much as we live it.
For us all of us, my prayer is that however we choose to spend our leisure time, we never forget to engage our soul, to strive to battle the wrongs we encounter, to stand up for good at all times. If we can do that, I guarantee that whatever team we are on and wherever we live, we will all be winners.