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Penn State Football By the Book of Numbers

07/17/2012 11:07 am ET | Updated Sep 16, 2012

When the indictment of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was made public in November 2011, Penn State did not cancel its season as it should have. Yes, once legendary and now summarily disgraced head coach Joe Paterno had been fired. And yes, a cabal of the university president and other administrators responsible for the cover-up of Sandusky's chronic sexual molestation of children had been dismantled.

But a game against Nebraska beckoned, followed by two more regular season games and a bowl game with many dollar signs trailing close behind. Let's remember that this was a dream match-up, too -- elite programs united for the first time under the majestic banner of the Big Ten. So while a rapist of children had been abetted by the university directly and the football team specifically, the game -- the show, that is -- had to go on.

Yet, it would be impossible for Penn State to completely ignore revelations about Sandusky's abuses and the school's gross mishandling of this tragic situation -- including placing the institution's reputation above the welfare of the victims. So, in an ironic gesture, to say the least (brilliantly pilloried by Charles P. Pierce), before kick-off both teams gathered at midfield and took a knee to pray for the victims -- and the cameras.

Sports and religion can make for a nasty combination. One of the many disturbing things about the Penn State abuse scandal is that sports, like religious ritual, is supposed to offer an effective means to sublimate violence in order to deepen social meaning and communal connections. In this case, violence and power were allowed to grow wildly without proper ethical oversight.

Numbers 30:2-36:13 -- known as Matot-Masei in the traditional Jewish lectionary cycle -- demonstrates on a national level the challenges the ancient Israelites face in their attempts to balance the use of violence both ritually and in achieving the ultimate goal of subduing the land of Canaan.

The journey from Abraham's covenant to the threshold of the Promised Land has been rich and rough, and Matot-Masei marks the moments before this promise comes true. It includes final ordering of families and tribes as well as the challenges of waging war without losing control of its costs, its spoils and those members of the Israelite community either too reticent or too eager to fight. Coach Moses and his staff must channel disparate and often violent tribal energy toward an ultimate goal. Then, as the Torah portion ends, so too does the Book of Numbers itself. No more waiting in the tunnel to storm the field. It's game time.

Matot-Masei also contains detailed instructions about various rituals and practices that were intended to curb or limit violence, including the need for combatants to undergo a ritual cleansing after battle (31:19-24) and the establishment of cities of refuge to protect those who committed accidental manslaughter from vengeance (35:6-7). Of course, at the heart of Israelite spiritual life is the sacrificial system in which the priests receive the ultimate call for sublimating violence by killing animals (supplemented by various and sundry vegetative matter) to feed the ritual engine of Israelite religion.

In his recent book "On Sacrifice," Moshe Halbertal asserts René Girard's belief that religious sacrifice controls violence which would otherwise escalate endlessly amongst people. This is the job priests are born to cultivate and fulfill. They protect society by transforming its dark powers into light.

The challenge of balancing violence with a generative social use is what was called "The Great Experiment" at Penn State. This was Paterno's creed that while other schools might exploit the talents of athletes while ignoring their obligations to be students, football players in Happy Valley were expected to be both fierce competitors on the field and upright citizens on campus. As Michael Weinreb recently shared, we can now see how the Great Experiment failed. With children as silent victims, violence, abuse, terror, hypocrisy and fear overtook every corner of the laboratory.

And how does the experience of balancing violence with a form of societal benefit manifest itself in Matot-Masei? It's a mixed bag.

Bloody war on both sides of the border of Canaan forces even the reluctant tribes of Gad and Reuben to fight (Numbers 32). The toll of violence resulting from entering the Land is almost too high to assess. But boundaries are carved, families counted and recounted, and laws of tribute and order established. Society begins to take shape for a people that must transform itself from a fierce and hungry fighting force to a sustainable culture with a powerful priestly cult feeding the desires of both God and the nation. This is a story of a people struggling with competing needs and notions of violence, power, ritual and culture that continue to stir in the Land of Israel through the rest of the biblical story and far beyond it.

Joe Paterno's Great Experiment was an American cult revered for harnessing football not only to produce good fortune for a school, a town, a state, the N.C.A.A. and Paterno himself, but also education, social cohesion and even a journey of the spirit for the players and fans that counted themselves among Penn State's tribe. Some of sports' most astute observers accepted that this cult was fair even when it began to become apparent that it was eating its own young.

Athletes and fans are animated by the bliss of sports in ways that few experiences can match. But now -- much like in the conclusion of Numbers -- as the bodies of the living and the dead and the living dead are being counted at Penn State, we can only pray that a community of positive use to itself and others will arise from the carnage.

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.