The Torah of Touchdowns
By Aviva Amy Perlo
I grew up with a Dad who played football. People used to ask, "Your Dad played professional football? Really? Is he Jewish?"
"Yes," I would say, sensing that my response about my family somehow just defied a stereotype, only I wasn't sure how. Of course you could have two different identities simultaneously. Didn't everyone? I did not know yet just how different each family constitution could be.
I began playing soccer, t-ball, and swimming at around four or five. In elementary school, I added kickball and in junior high, my Dad taught me how to play basketball as point guard, how to pivot, how to call a give and go, how to form a pick, and how to fake left and drive right. In junior high, my sister and I played volleyball, scraped the spikes off the floor, and I also ran track. The rush of performing well on the field, hearing my mom and the parents cheer for us on the sidelines, eating orange slices at half time, and moving the ball down the field proved awesome! We went to Sunday school, Bat Mitzvah class, and Confirmation. We just also had sports. Carpool was busy.
My Father played professional football for one year, and then his passion and career came to a screeching halt when he broke his neck while intercepting a pass from Jack Kemp. Miracously he survived, and with only minor paralysis in his neck. He went on to sell insurance and coach lots of little league. He loved to encourage kids. Though he mainly coached boys' teams, one year he took my girls' soccer team from last place to first place. He made us work hard and repeat after him "Never Give In, Never Give In." Like Roosevelt, he said. I whispered to him that third grade girls might not know who Roosevelt was, but it didn't matter. The point was to be positive. And it worked.
My father passed away 20 years ago during Chanukah time. I have often wondered how to best mark the day of a loved one's passing. Jewish tradition simply tells us to light a candle and say the Kaddish prayer. Some years I have added an art performance, gathered friends to pray, and donated to children's sports camps in his name. Not a day goes by that I do not reflect on the lessons learned from him. In recent years, I see more and more how the lessons of Touchdowns inter-twine with the lessons of Torah. My father first taught my sister and me what is called "Ready position." Stand on the balls of your feet, heels up, thighs low to the ground, weight forward, head up, eyes on the field. The goal was to be able to move side to side, as needed, because "you never know what is coming." Jeez was he right!
The ready position in Torah tells us to practice mitzvoth, or good deeds, from a young age. Create habits that offer positive structure to our lives. When something goes awry, we still have some positive structure to lift up our lives. Ready position in sports allows you to literally stay close to the ground and move quickly in any direction. Maintain your frame and increase the possibilities of being agile.
The next lesson my father taught my sister and me is that the game is for the field. Play hard until the referee blows the whistle, and once the game is over, it is over. Afterwards, congratulate all of the players on the field, opponents and all, and walk away with pride and respect for each player and for the beauty of the game. He warned us that some people would try to ignite a fight off the field and try to hold onto an 'Us versus Them' mentality. "But life if much bigger than that," he would say, "Do not fall into that trap."
I did not fully understand this lesson until recently. A few weeks ago I heard a presentation at my synagogue about how Jewish people make arguments and what constitutes a worthy argument. The information cited the Mishnah and came from a worksheet prepared by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. You might think that Jews could argue about anything from here until eternity, but according to Jewish tradition, this is not so. If our argument is for "the sake of Heaven," then the argument has something to teach, or offer, like Hillel and Shammai. But if our argument is "not for the sake of Heaven," and is instead lead by ego, narcissism, or to display power over another, then the argument will not last. Jewish text affirms that it is possible to have different opinions and peacefully agree to disagree. If we pay attention to the content of the message, the communication style and the intention, then we can better judge the merit of an argument.
After chewing on this teaching about arguments, my father's athletic teachings have taken on new meaning. It is as if he wanted to say, focus on the game, and then resume a good life. Relegate competition to specific times and places. If after the game ends, others bully you into a post-game session or a meaningless argument, do not be sidetracked. Plenty of distractions will arise but remember to 'Keep your eye on the ball because the most important game is to live a good life.'