Tuesday, April 22, 2014

To Sport or Not To Sport

To be clear, I love sports. I grew up a diehard Houston Astros fan. I remember '86 like it was yesterday, and I still miss the days of the 'Killer B's.' Love Ya Blue was regularly shouted in my household, and the great playoff collapse against the Bills still stings to this very day. And don't get me started on the excitement we all felt watching the Ravens defeat the 49'ers while watching the game in Cuba of all places. The reason why I mention this is because I am not deriding sports nor the playing of sports.

What I am concerned about is our cultures overall emphasis on sports and the lessons it teaches. All athletic endeavors, in their purest form, emphasizes practice, athletic ability, practice, training, practice, and giving it your all. But perhaps the lesson that I think we place too much emphasis on it today's world is the idea of fair competition.

What I mean by this is the idea that in any athletic endeavor, especially team sports, everyone has agreed to abide by the same rules. There are referees to adjudicate. There are fouls and penalties. And punishments are meted out mostly fairly. Players are rewarded based solely off of their athletic ability and performance on the field of play.

What this teaches our kids is the central idea that if you work hard enough and you are blessed with certain innate talents that you bring to fruition, you will succeed on a level playing field.

The problem is, life is not a playing field. Rarely those with the most talent rise to the top. And even more rarely do we even agree on the 'rules' of the game. There are inherent advantages and disadvantages which have nothing to do with 'ability.' And just because you are shining star in one arena does not necessary translate to success in other areas.

This is why, I strongly feel, religion has a role to continue to play in today's world. Religious observance, at its best, presupposes and unfair world. Instead of imagining the world as a level playing field, it envisions the world as it ought to be. What this means is that we are supposed to work to make the world more fair, more right, and more just.

I agree that it is important to teach our kids the significance of athletic competition: how to win with grace, how to lose with style, and how to embrace the the competitive fire. But we also have to tech kids how to fight for the world that is not fair. How to stand up for those who lost the game of life because they were simply born in the wrong economic environment or only had substandard schools to attend. And most importantly, how to embrace those who are not like us at all.

Participation in sports helps to train the body, religion is essential for training the soul. Practice at sports can help make the individual and the team better. Observance of religion can help make the world better.  All we need is a little more balance.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Why I Shaved - For Sam

As many of you know, I have been an advocate for #36RabbisShavefortheBrave. It was a fundraiser through the St. Baldricks organization envisioned by two of my colleagues: Rabbis Phyllis Sommer and Rebecca Schorr. They originally wanted to get thirty-six rabbis together to offer to shave their heads at our rabbinic conference in Chicago to raise money to fight childhood cancer. This effort was going to be in honor of Phyllis’ son Sam “Superman” Sommer. Sadly, as many of you also know, the effort soon became one in memory of Superman Sam.

As I have been busily working hard on behalf of Har Sinai Congregation in our ReJewVenate Campaign, it simply did not feel right for me to work for a separate major fundraising campaign. So whenever I was asked, I simply said, I was supporting the Shave for the Brave and encouraging others to donate to such a worthwhile cause.

the 'before' picture with Rabbi Craig Axler
However, there was part of me that felt tremendous guilt over not supporting Phyllis and Michael Sommer (both classmates, colleagues and dear friends) in a more active way. I told myself, I just needed to stand by them and work from the sidelines to help them achieve their goals.  That, I told myself, would be enough, dayenu.

But as I took several hundred pictures of my colleagues and friends, nearly sixty in total, all up on the stage, shaving their heads, something in me was moved. Though I had not personally raised thousands of dollars for the cause, I still wanted to give more out of a sense of solidarity. I wanted to give more out of support.

And so when the last person walked into the barber’s chair, I stepped up. I was just as shocked by my actions as everyone else.

I am honored and blessed that my friends allowed me to do this. I am honored to stand by all those who shaved their heads to make a point, that no one else needs to die from childhood cancer. There is still time to donate to this important cause:  St. Baldrick's Page

me with Sammy's parents Phyllis and Michael Sommer (the three bald amigos!)