As big a sports fan as I am, I do not regularly incorporate sports into my sermons. It is the perception among some of my congregants that I do, but actually I rarely initiate a sports conversation in synagogue (unless I am talking about my kids!). If I am referring to the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics or Bruins, it is usually because someone has decided to give me a hard time about a tough loss, or to let me know they were thinking of me when my team went down. I truly appreciate all the good-natured jabs (most of the time); I realize that sports is just one more avenue that can serve to connect us to each other and can offer an occasional lesson that can be applied more broadly to Judaism and life.
This past month, however, I decided to devote my ongoing learning classes to sports and the lessons we can learn from them. I was pleasantly surprised to have a class of more than two dozen students – each of the three evenings I was teaching – with many participants who rarely attend ongoing learning sessions; and with a much higher ratio of male students (80 percent) than I ever had for a class. Not bad for an egalitarian, Conservative congregation!
Over the three sessions, we studied texts from our Jewish tradition that offer insights that could be applied to the way we view team sports, individual competitive sports, and the sports that place us in nature (like fly fishing and hiking). We explored the dynamics of team-building (or community-building); responsibility to and for one another; the value of a shared vision and shared goal; the importance of seeing a potential coach and teammate (or teacher and friend) in every person; the drive to excel and succeed; the danger of succeeding at someone else’s expense; the need for physical health and exertion; the need for mindfulness; the urge to master our environment; and the power of awe and humility…all through a Jewish lens.
One topic I chose not to teach (which feels particularly relevant today), however, is the relationship of Judaism to the sports spectator. With the Red Sox appearing in the World Series tonight for the third time in ten years, I realize my children have been deprived of the many lessons I learned waiting forty years for their first championship of my lifetime (and my father’s!). As we follow our teams together and across the generations, I have discovered other connections to our rich Jewish tradition. I am not referring to the concept of “Midor L’dor” (from one generation to another), though that is certainly a worthwhile Jewish value. Rather, I am referring to the Jewish belief that the spectator has a role in the outcome of the game. You don’t believe me? Our family knows that when something good is happening in a game, one does not speak or text or go to the bathroom; one does not change one’s position for fear of changing the course of events. Every baseball fan knows you don’t speak to the pitcher when he is pitching a perfect game. Every fan knows you don’t utter the phrase “no-hitter” as your pitcher takes the mound in the seventh inning. And every fan knows that announcers are constantly reversing fates and fortunes when they bring up a statistic about a player or team on a streak!
In Judaism, we say “mishaneh makom, mishaneh mazal” (you change your place, you change your luck). If it is true to our betterment, it also is true to our detriment. From spitting three times (“pooh, pooh, pooh”) to wearing a red string to ward off the evil eye (ayin ha-ra), Jews believe that what we do can cause a shift in the cosmos. Our deeds, our words, and even our thoughts can change the course of events, the alignment of our stars, and the flow of God’s presence that runs through all things.
So if you are wearing socks and the Sox are on a roll…