Sunday, September 14, 2014

Ki Tavo: Ray Rice, Domestic Violence, and the Possibility for Teshuvah

Below is the video for the sermon I delivered on Friday September 12, 2014 on Ki Tavo.  Below it is the sermon text which also includes the references and links mentioned in the sermon. A special thank you to Adam Nudelman and Event Video for recording the sermon:

Ki Tavo: Ray Rice, Domestic Violence, and the Possibility for Teshuvah

            Yesterday I had the opportunity to listen to a presentation by Eric de Costa, the Assistant Manager for Ozzie Newsome and Senior Talent Scout for the Baltimore Ravens at our monthly Baltimore Board of Rabbis meeting. Part of the reason why Eric came to speak to us is because he regularly plays racquetball with the President of the Board of Rabbis, Chaim Landau.
         Even before Eric started speaking to us, during our lunch I asked him why, given all the turmoil of the week, he still chose to come speak to us. Eric stated that one of the things that drives him nuts is when a player has a particularly bad day on the field makes the choice not to speak to the media; but when they have a great day on the field, they are the first ones up there on the podium front and center. Eric told me when he makes a commitment, be it a good day or even after a really really bad week, he stands by his commitments.
         I was moved by his comments and I knew we were in for a special treat. Eric did not hold back, with regards to the Ray Rice situation, and he said as much, that if there is anyone to blame that he, Eric, was to blame because he was the one who decided to draft Ray. Of course the only person really to blame is Ray Rice who made a horrific choice.
         But the conversation did bring about larger questions. For example, according to sources, Ray was completely transparent both with the league and with the Ravens, so the only thing that changed between that fateful day in Atlantic City and this week was the release by TMZ of the rest of the video.
         Eric explained that there is something quite visceral and disturbing when it comes to seeing something versus hearing something. The example he gave was of those recent horrific beheadings of American Journalists by ISIS. Now ISIS has been engaging in such activities for the past two years, but the reason why we are now so upset is because we have seen them in action, versus hearing about it.
         I too fell into this trap. In response to the Ray Rice video, I made the following post on Facebook: “As football fans, we are quick to cast judgment on players of other teams, while we are just as quick to defend our own favorite players on our teams. Football is a violent sport that sadly sometimes spills out off the field. Having now seen the recently released footage from the incident with Ray Rice and the Hotel, it truly decimates all the good that he has tried to do in the community. There is no excuse for his actions. As a recent transplant to Baltimore and a newish Ravens fan, I am disappointed that the league has not taken further action with regards to suspending him. My hope and prayer is Ray and his wife find healing. Ray is able to find other outlets for his anger, and that the league take issues like this much more seriously. We Ravens fans do not condone any violence against women, children, and pretty much against anyone else. Our support of our team is not support of Ray's actions. And on behalf of the greater Baltimore area, if I may speak so boldly, we are both sickened and saddened.”
         I, for one, did not feel the same compulsion to write something similar when the news first broke this past spring. Needless to say, I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about this. Why did I not react more strongly? Perhaps it was because the issue was for the most part, swept under the rug. As The National Organization for Women stated, "The NFL doesn't have a Ray Rice problem, it has a violence against women problem."
         And there will now be an investigation into how the NFL chose to handle this issue. However it is clear, domestic violence in our society is not deplored enough. It still tends to be taken into stride by too many.
         That being said, we are in the middle of Elul. The High Holy Days are coming around the corner, and I feel there is a golden opportunity here. I expressed as much a similar thought to Mr. de Costa as well.
         The Yamim Noraiim really have a two-fold nature to them. The first is to take stock of where we have gone wrong. That is why so much of our worship services are centered around the V’shamnu and the Al Cheit, the personal and group confessionals. However in many ways, confessing is the easier of the two acts. The second act, the center piece of both Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is then to learn from those mistakes, those errors, those sins, and try do to better, especially if a similar situation arises.
         I believe the Sefer Chayim, the Book of Life, is not a literal book where our names are written for life or for death in the coming year, but instead are a reminder that, as Red said in the Shawshank Redemption, “You either get busy living or you get busy dying.” Dying in this case is about not living up to our truest natures, our truest potentials. To right the wrongs and make ourselves and our world better, is the only true way to live.
         With that in mind, I mentioned to Mr. de Costa, to date, the NFL continues to be in a reactionary position especially when it comes to violence against women by its employees. What I encouraged Mr. de Costa to do is to work with the Ravens and the NFL to take a more pro-active approach.
         Currently the NFL is mostly focused on punishing players who commit transgressions. Or not even drafting players who have already committed transgressions. But it is not really involved in the greater societal issue to trying to tackle domestic abuse head on.
         Just imagine if you will instead players, executives, and owners rallying around this cause. The Ravens and the NFL are currently the face of Domestic Violence, whether they like it or not. So why not own it? Why not make commercials, hold fundraisers, and speak out whenever possible against domestic violence? They now have the unique authority and the singular opportunity to do so!
         At least the Ray Rice incident is forcing us to talk about this dark secret. One of the areas of conversation I find fascinating and disturbing are peoples’ criticisms of Janay Rice, the victim and Ray’s now wife. Why doesn’t she just leave is a common refrain.
         One of the main reasons why victims don’t leave is, according to an article on, “If a victim is financially dependent on their abuser -- for income, for a roof over their head, even for health insurance -- walking away is made all the more difficult. They often must struggle to become financially self-sufficient, putting them at greater risk of falling into poverty and homelessness.”[1]
        As the article goes on to say, “Abusers often use money as a way to maintain power over their victims. They will withhold money, ruin the victim's credit, even forbid them to work so they don't have an independent source of income, according to the National Network to End Domestic Violence.”[2]
        I don’t think any of us are in a position to judge, especially Janay. My hope and prayer is that she is getting all the help and support she needs. And my other prayer is that we refrain from blaming her in any way. The relationship between the abused and the abuser is complex to say the least. And it is our role to support the abused, even if we do not always agree with their choices.
As a Washington Post article recently stated, “Her response is not surprising, said Brian Pinero, director for digital services of The National Domestic Violence Hotline and LoveIsRespect, a program for teens and young adults. “Remember, she is the victim …We hear from women all the time, ‘but I still love him.’”
“Any victim of physical abuse has suffered psychological and emotional abuse as well,” said Kristin Brumm, associate executive director of SAFEHOME, a shelter for domestic violence victims in Overland Park, Kan. “They may actually believe they’re to blame.”[3]
         And lest we forget, the Rices also have a child together. And to add something further to think about from the same article: “Three women a day, on average, are killed by a boyfriend or husband in the United States. Where’s the Ice Bucket Challenge raising awareness and money for this epidemic?
Leaving an abusive spouse, sadly, is often the most dangerous time for a woman. She’s 70 percent more likely to be killed when she’s trying to escape.”[4] The situation is never as clear cut as we wish it to be.
         Be that as it may, I believe it was Charles Barkley who famously said, “I am not a role model.” Well the truth is, athletes like all entertainers, are role models. It is the nature of the roll. We can argue whether or not this a good societal choice till the cows come home, but the fact is, our kids look up to our athletes.
         Our Torah portion this week is Ki Tavo. In it we find the following words, “The Eternal your God commands you this day to observe these laws and rules; observe them faithfully with all your heart and soul … and God will set you, in fame and renown and glory, high above all the nations that God has made; and that you shall be, as promised, a holy people to the Eternal your God” (Deuteronomy 26:16-19).
         Israel was not chosen, was not made holy, and will not be regarded in fame, renown and glory because we are strong, we are good looking, or because we are talented. Fame, renown, and glory come because Israel is supposed to be righteous and Kadosh, holy.
         Holiness comes from doing what is right, even when it is hard. Holiness comes from changing ones past ways in order to become better people, better husbands, better fathers, better wives, better mothers, better siblings, better sons, better daughters, better friends, better grandparents and the like.
         We cannot change the past nor can we change past mistakes. The best we can do is own those past transgressions and work not to repeat them in order that they do not happen again. So even as we celebrate a Ravens victory over their rivals, even as we are still angry, hurt and disgusted by what has transpired with a beloved and admired figure in the Baltimore community, we too are reminded that we as well have a golden opportunity to make this next year a better one.
         My hope is that Ray Rice, the Ravens, and the NFL are able and willing to engage in some serious teshuvah this season, and work to make the world a little better and a little more safe, especially for women and children. But regardless, it is a good reminder that we all have the capacity to do teshuvah, especially in this season.
         For holiness is not a perpetual state. Only God is consistently and eternally holy. For the rest of us, it is an aspiration. It is something we can always strive for. All we have to do is be open to owning our mistakes and striving to make ourselves better. And if we do, the world will indeed become a little more holy.
         And if you are, or if you know someone who is currently a victim of domestic violence, I urge you to call the National Domestic Hotline 1-800-799-SAFE or 1-800-799-7233.
         May all be safe in this coming year to pursue their best selves and not have to worry about whether or not, they will in fact be safe at all.

[2] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.

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