Category Archives: sports

Colin Kaepernick and Gene Wilder

This a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 9/3/16

A week from tomorrow another NFL season will kick off, with the Ravens opening at home agains the Buffalo Bills.  Fans from around the country, at least for a now, can dream big – as they say, at this point every team is undefeated.

I am always glad when the formal season begins because I have strong distaste for preseason football.  I think there are too many games, I think it wears down the players, and I also think it is more than a bit cynical that they charge those of you who are season ticket holders for the preseason match ups.  Aside from that the games are mostly meaningless.  But this year the NFL preseason was more interesting than usual, mostly because of the quarterback who will probably be starting for the 49s next weekend, a young man by the name of Colin Kaepernick.   If you follow the news at all you probably know that Kaepernick has been intentionally sitting during the pre game playing of the national anthem.  Admittedly it is one of those odd moments when the sports world overlaps with nationalism and patriotism, but it is traditional now, before any major sporting event, to play the Star Spangled Banner.  And it is of course traditional that when the Star Spangled Banner is played, everyone stands.

But not Colin Kaepernick.  He has explained that his sitting during the anthem is a way of quietly but very publicly protesting what he sees as racial inequality and injustice in this country, specifically directed at the African American community.  Kaepernick himself is biracial – he has one black parent, one white parent – was adopted and raised by white parents.  But he clearly identifies with his black heritage, and he has decided, as a public figure, to stage these protests, to speak out, and to take a stand.

Now you may agree or disagree with him on the issues, and you also may not believe it is proper for him to use the  public stage that he has to make his point.  At the same time you might feel that he is being disrespectful to the American flag, and maybe by extension to America itself.  Certainly the flag is a potent symbol, the National Anthem is something that is emotional, that people feel deeply about.  And no question what he is doing is provocative.  But I’d like to think with you for a moment about what he is doing from a different perspective  – the perspective of pride in identity, of caring about who you are and where you come from so much that you will put yourself at risk to stand up for it.

Certainly that is something that Jews should be able to identity with.  Here we are reading the book of Deuteronomy, the entire book a last long speech that Moses gives to the Israelites before they enter the land.  The fact that an entire book of the Torah is devoted to Moses’ words gives an indication of what a towering figure he is in the eyes of the tradition.  Moshe Rabeinu we call him – Moses our teacher.  The greatest teacher, law giver, and prophet we have every known.

You remember Moses’ background.  Where was he raised?  In the house of Pharaoh, in the wealthiest home in all of Egypt.  We so closely identify Moses with the Jewish people that we don’t often think about this, but Moses probably had a choice.  He could have been an Egyptian, perhaps he could have become powerful, living a life of luxury in the greatest country in the ancient world.  But he didn’t.  He chose another life.  He chose to cast his lot with his own people.  And ultimately that choice meant exile, it meant a life of hardship and difficulty, it meant wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, and in the end never actually making it to the Promised Land.

So imagine for a moment with me this morning if Colin Kaepernick were Jewish.  And imagine if his public protest was in support of Israel, or some other Jewish cause.  And I now how hard this is to imagine, because I know how hard it is to imagine that there is a starting quarterback in the NFL who is Jewish. (Jay Fiedler the last!?)  But imagine for a moment, if during the debate about the Iran nuclear deal for example –  a Jewish quarterback had said I am going to sit during the National Anthem as a way of showing support for Israel.  Certainly there would have been people in the Jewish community who would have taken tremendous pride in that, and said, ‘that guy is a hero!’

And the truth is, maybe we would like more of our well known Jewish figures to publicly stand up for Jewish causes and to make statements about Jewish issues and to take pride in their Jewish identity.  Thinking this week particularly about Jerome Silverman – who is that?  Gene Wilder!  That was Gene Wilder’s given name.  I loved Gene Wilder.  He was astonishingly talented, and hysterically funny.  All of the classic roles and films – Young Frankenstein, and Blazing Saddles, and the Frisco Kid and of course the classic film version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where he played Willy Wonka.  But Becky and I weren’t even sure Gene Wilder was Jewish until his various obituaries started coming out.

In some ways Bernie Sanders was the same.  He seemed at times so uncomfortable with his Judaism, like he didn’t even want it brought up, and when it was, he made sure to let everyone know he was a secular Jew.  And this is not to knock Bernie Sanders as an individual, or as a politician for that matter, and it is not to knock Gene Wilder either.  It is simply to say that it would be nice, and in fact maybe it would even be important, if more Jews who were living in the public eye would show – publicly – a forceful pride in their Jewish roots and strong concern for Jewish causes.

Labor Day weekend may mark the beginning of the football season, but it also reminds us that the baseball playoffs cannot be far off.  (what is going to happen to the Orioles God only knows!)  And when Jews think about baseball, and they think about the holidays, who do they always think about?   Sandy Koufax, the hall of fame pitcher for the LA Dodgers, and the choice that he made not to pitch game 1 of the 1965 world series because why?  It fell on Yom Kippur.  A half a century later Jews still talk about that, we remember it, we hold it up as an example of a fellow Jew publicly affirming his Jewish identity and Jewish values.  We are tremendously proud of that moment.

And I think we need other moments like that.  It would be good for us, good for our pride, and I also think it would be good for our children and our grandchildren.  If I stand up to take a stand about a Jewish issue it doesn’t matter.  It is exactly what people would expect.  Our young people will say ‘that is the rabbi, of course!  No big deal!’  But if Bernie Sanders had said ‘I am running for president, and some of my core issues are based on Jewish values,’ or Jewish actor or musician stood up and said ‘I care about Israel and I am speaking out against BDS, or supporting some Jewish cause.  I think our kids would pay attention to that, and learn from it, and feel proud about it.

But you know what?  They will also pay attention to it, learn from it, and feel proud about it when we do it as well.  What a public figure does or does not do we can’t control.  What we do – that is up to us.  There is an old saying – rabbis only give two sermons – be good, and be Jewish.  Maybe this is a 3rd path – be good, be Jewish, and be proud.

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Sports Here, Sports There, Sports, Sports…

This a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 6/4/16

This is the time of year when the Jewish community begins to plan for next year.  Jewish professionals all over Baltimore are sitting down with the calendars and blocking out dates for programs that will not occur for months, and in some cases almost for a full year.  And one thing we’ve learned, in terms of fall programming particularly, is that if there is any way to help it, never, ever plan an event during a Ravens game.  And believe it or not, when we sit down to calendar the fall, we always have a Ravens schedule right in front of us.

That may seem almost like a no brainier to us today, but it wasn’t always that way.  Even when I first came here the football schedule was not the first thing we thought of when we were thinking about dates.  But today it is just another example of the power, prevalence, and priority placed on sports in our lives.  We are all familiar with this in one way or another.  Maybe for your family it is the Ravens, and you have a twenty week period of your year, from early September to late December, or later if the Ravens go into the playoffs, where absolutely nothing happens on Sunday, because the day is dedicated exclusively to football.  Maybe you are one of those families that spends all weekend, pretty much all year long, schlepping your children around from one sporting event to the next, traveling on weekends for games, running kids to practices during the week, and suddenly you realize that six weeks have gone by and the family hasn’t eaten dinner together one time.

Before I continue, I want to first say something clearly – I think sports is terrific.  I think playing a sport is a great experience for young people, and I think rooting passionately for a team is a great experience at any age.  I grew up playing soccer, and was the captain of my high school varsity team, so it was a big part of my life.  If you know me well you know I love my teams, follow them closely, don’t sleep at night when they lose – which unfortunately, with last year’s Mets the rare exception, my teams seem to do most of the time.  But two recent incidents have me wondering – as I have often recently – if our priorities have shifted just a little too much in one direction.

The first has to do with our military academies.  I became a football fan in the 70s, and if you watched football in the 70s you certainly knew about the Dallas Cowboys.  Whether you loved them or hated them – there didn’t really seem to be a middle ground – you probably admired them, Tom Landry their coach with his ever present fedora, their so called Doomsday defense, but most of all, with the all American quarterback Roger Staubach.  Staubach was a great player, one of the great quarterbacks of his generation.  He played at the Naval Academy, and in 1963, his senior year, won the Heisman Trophy for best college football player in the land.  And then, as required, he served our country in the Navy for six years, to include a tour in Vietnam.  So Staubach took possibly the best 6 years of his athletic life, and set them aside to serve our country.

Contrast Staubach’s experience with that of Keenan Reynolds.  Reynolds has been the star quarterback at Navy over the last few seasons, one of the best football players on the Annapolis campus for decades.  When he went to the academy he knew he was going to play football, but he also knew that after he graduated that he  – like Roger Staubach – would have a five year obligation for active duty.  But just a few days ago the Secretary of Defense announced that Reynolds would not have to serve any active duty time – not a single year.  Instead, he’ll be wearing a Ravens jersey and trying to make the team this fall as its back up quarterback.

The contrasting stories of Staubach and Reynolds are really an illustration of a change in values in our society.  In Staubach’s day duty and country were number one, and they were non negotiable – even if you were a star athlete, even if you were a Heisman trophy winner, when you graduated you owed the Academy and the country five years of service, and you paid that dept.  Today that has changed – duty and country are still obviously important in the Naval Academy – but when you have a top athlete like Keenan Reynolds, suddenly the old values are set aside.  In our sports crazy nation, where people have become used to prioritizing sports since they were little, sports has become number one, and everything else is secondary.

Which is exactly how you arrive at the other sports related situation that has been in the newspapers this week, the goings on in the football program of Baylor University.  Over the last years Baylor has become one of the top football programs in the country, but we now know its climb to the top was fostered by corruption at the very highest levels of the school’s administration.  It was discovered that over the last few years a series of players on the team were involved with documented sexual assault cases.  Some of them were actually convicted in court.  But most of them, believe it or not, kept playing for the team.  What made that possible was that the coach of the team conspired with school leadership to cover up what happened.  It took a while, but the coach was finally fired, and just last week the president of the university, a gentleman by the name of Ken Starr who you might remember from Bill Clinton’s presidency, was forced to resign.  The full extent of the scandal is not yet known, but it seems the motivating factor in many of the decisions made was fairly simple – the success of the football program takes precedence over everything and anything else.

You know, actions have consequences.  This morning’s Torah portion contains one of the most troubling and problematic passages in the entire Bible, so notable the passage actually has its own name – the Tochecha – the Rebuke.  It is a series of curses that the Torah explains God will bring on the Israelites if they do not follow God’s commandments.  Terrible things.  Famine.  Disease.  Destruction.  The list goes on and on.  The problem with the passage, of course, is that we don’t believe that God works that way – we know from our experience that there are times when good people suffer for no reason, and when bad people have long and easy lives.  We don’t believe in Divine reward and punishment anymore.  But the way I read the passage there is a fundamental idea in it that rings true to me – what you do does make a difference.  Poor choices result in bad things happening.  Setting aside good values for bad, living deceitfully, whatever it might be.  There are conscious choices that we make, actions that we take, that will have either a positive or negative impact on our lives, and on our world.

Maybe it is just me, but in my mind it is all connected.  If we are teaching our children from the time they are little that sports is more important than anything else, if we are creating a culture where win at all costs is the operative value, if we are willing to make exceptions for the star athletes, then it is only a matter of time before you arrive at a Baylor University like scandal.  Actions, choices, decisions, have consequences.  The sage Ben Azzai says it well in the Talmud – מצוה גוררת מצוה עבירה גוררת עבורה – one good deed brings another good deed – but in the same way, one bad deed brings another bad deed.

Perhaps it is time to think about how to shift our intense focus on sports, reminding ourselves that at the end of the day it is just a game, and hopefully – there is so much more to life.

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A Hockey Game Broke Out

this the text of my Shabbat sermon from 5/7/16 – and as a post script, the Caps won last night to extend their series to a 6th game –

Of all the major sports the one I don’t pay any attention to is hockey.  Living in this area I know there are some serious Washington Capitols fans around, and I know enough to know the Capitols are on the verge of being eliminated from the playoffs, after being the best team during the regular season, so I feel for their fans.  But I always felt that hockey was too focused on violence – on the occasions when I did watch a few minutes of a game while growing up it always seemed to be just at the moment when two players would throw off their gloves, begin circling each other on the ice, suddenly close and violently rain blows down upon one another’s heads.  The old joke to me always seemed exactly right – I went to a fight the other night, and the strangest thing happened – a hockey game broke out!

We might say something along the same lines this week about the Turkish Parliament.  If you follow international news you probably know that on Monday, while debating a new piece of legislation, a major brawl broke out, with members of the Turkish Parliament jumping over tables, hurling coffee and water bottles at each other, and yes, with their fists beating one another until a number of them were left bleeding and dazed.  In a bizarrely fascinating kind of way it is quite something to see, and of course there are a variety of videos available on the internet.

Perhaps in other places in the world people are not shocked by such events.  After all, just over the last few years there have been violent fights in the parliaments of Taiwan and Georgia – not the state, the country – and at least three in the Ukraine alone.  But to watch this kind of thing go on as an American is an entirely different experience.  We know that lawmakers might get verbally aggressive, we know that verbal debates might be filled with tension and acrimony, but we also know – or at least we think we know – that verbal tension and aggression will not spill over into physical confrontation.  We can’t imagine, for example, Paul Ryan jumping over his desk trying to throttle Nancy Pelosi.  If anything there is a powerful sense of decorum in the political chambers of our country, a fundamental understanding subscribed to by all the politicians that as much as they might dislike each other, as strong as their disagreements might be, they will settle their differences through the political process – debate, lobbying, and voting.

And it is something that maybe we take for granted in the US, but we should not.  I would argue it is one of the greatest gifts that our founding fathers left for us.  I remember Rabbi Loeb once saying that Americans go to bed on the night of the presidential election with not a worry in their heads that they will wake up in the morning and see soldiers in the streets of Washington.  Instead, we all know that the losing party will call the victor and congratulate him – or her.  The team of the outgoing administration will meet with the incoming team to give them everything they need in terms of knowledge, access, and power.  And at an appointed day and time the old team will quietly pack up their desks and walk peacefully out of their offices, and the new administration will just as peacefully walk in.  It happens every time, and we take it for granted – but it is truly remarkable, and one of the many things that should make us deeply grateful to live in this country.

But I will confess to you this morning that more than I ever have before I am worried that a hockey game might break out in our political process.  To me it has less to do with the candidates themselves than it does with the rising level of difficulty that we have – the common people – in terms of talking to one another about the important issues of our time.   We all know the old saying – never publicly discuss politics or religion.  But I know from conversations I’ve had with people recently that they can’t even discuss politics with friends they’ve known for decades, or even with their own family members.  The emotional reactions that such conversations produce, the anger and mistrust, even the severing of relationships, make political conversation today different than it was 15 years ago.  Two quick stories.

The first, something that happened to me.  I was driving home just recently, and I noticed a young man running along the side of the road, looking guilty, like he had stolen something.  Then I realized he had stolen something.  It was a Donald Trump sign that he had clearly taken from someone’s lawn.  Now I understand if that young gentleman does not agree with Mr. Trump’s views – it is his right, and he can, and I suppose will, express that in the voting booth in November.  But he has no right to steal a neighbor’s property, and I would argue even more than that the message of his action was exactly wrong – he was essentially saying to his neighbor ‘you don’t even the right to publicly show your support for your candidate.  And when you try to do so I will take matters into my own hand, whether legally or not.’

The second story was a bit more disturbing, told to me by a congregant.  This family supports Hillary Clinton, and by way of showing their support they had dutifully placed a Hillary sign on their front lawn.  They next day they woke up and didn’t see the sign.  When they went out to investigate they found the sign ripped to shreds all over their lawn.  To me that is worse than stealing.  Ripping something to shreds is a violent activity, and I would say – and I can tell you my congregants felt this way – there is an implied threat when someone goes through the trouble of destroying something you have put into place with your own hands.

And what I worry about is that those kinds of actions – actions! – will more and more define our political discourse.  Not the debate of ideas, not the exchange of words – even heated words – but the angry and impulsive deed which leaves no room for honest, well meant dialogue, even if that dialogue is difficult.  I don’t think any of us want to live in that kind of political climate.  I think all of us would be horrified to see a brawl break out in the halls of congress.    But I also think we have to take ownership of this issues, we have to understand that we are all responsible in a way, and therefore we all need to guard against it in our own actions and speech, and to speak out against it when we see it taking place.

In this morning’s Torah portion we read the well known 16th chapter of Leviticus, which is also the Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning, describing the ritual the High Priest enacted in ancient times on that sacred day.  There is no question in the text that part of what the High Priest is doing is atoning for the sins of all Israel, everyone in the nation.  My sense of that has always been one of connection – that is to say, when I sin, it doesn’t only impact my life – in some way it also affects you.  And when you sin, I am actually implicated – it is in part my fault.  We are all connected, and each regretful act brings us all down, even if just a bit, while each redemptive act helps us, together, to rise to a higher and better place.

That is the place I would like to get to – a place of collective responsibility, of mutual respect, of meaningful dialogue.  A place where maybe one day we’ll look back and say – you know what?  I went to a presidential election, and a respectful debate about ideas actually broke out –

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The NFL and VW – Who Knew?

Well, the cat is out of the bag. We now know that even at the very highest levels of the NFL’s corporate structure there was an awareness that playing football is directly correlated to brain trauma and that a significant percentage of NFL players will struggle with the devastating brain disease CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). Exactly when who knew what is still an open question, but they’ve known for a while, and all the while they’ve known the games have gone on, making even more money, with bigger and brighter spectacle, with a more and more ravenous fan base.

What will ultimately happen I have no idea. The NFL is the biggest game in town, and the amount of money the league generates is in the billions of dollars. I don’t have to tell you that people will often sacrifice just about anything for money. Their morals, their integrity, heck even their friends and families. But for some reason it stills feels disappointing to me that every time with these mega corporations and entities there seems to be a cover up. Those who know, those who are responsible, those charged with making the decisions, end up abrogating their responsibility, or even worse, knowingly being deceitful and dishonest, misleading the rest of us. Its fine! No worries! Business as usual! Carry on!

And if nothing is more American than the NFL, what is more German than Volkswagen? Different business, but in the end the same story. An organized deception, a planned ongoing cover up, folks in the know all along the hierarchical chain. You have to wonder – didn’t they realize that at a certain point the truth would come out? And isn’t it always better to tackle these things at the earliest possible stage? Unpleasant, for sure, but it seems to me the longer you wait, the more unpleasant it gets. I guess it is the idea of hanging on to a sinking boat. It might be going down, but at least you know what you are holding.

I guess in the end it is money that does the talking. When all of a sudden money is at stake people sit up and pay attention, and the apologies start coming out, with promises of ‘full investigations’ and complete transparency. VW is learning that lesson in a real way. The NFL not so much, at least not yet. Whether one day they will only time will tell. Time and the league’s fans, who continually and so generously feed the beast.

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