A rabbi once gave me the advice, “Never talk about sports on the Bimah, people will know you are a sports fan, you don’t need to tell them.” It’s hard not to know I am a sports fan. All you have to do is walk into my office and you are surrounded by sports memorabilia (an ode to Harvey Spector). But to not talk about sports has been difficult. I understand the advice; if I always look to sports I become one dimensional and will alienate certain members of my audience and congregation. He was pushing me to think outside of my comfort zone and add depth to my sermons and rabbinate.
I assume that many of my colleagues this week are discussing the nasty side of the sports world that has been portrayed in the media. The recent abuse of women, children, and substances has blurred the true essence of sports. Our disappointment or fueled anger over the poor decisions of a few athletes is because of our passionate sports allegiances to teams and athletes. But there is, of course, a lighter and more meaningful side to sports.
In 2012 I lost a friend by the name of Eric Steinthal z’l. Eric had established himself as a basketball legend at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. Eric’s status didn’t arise just because it was nearly impossible to stop him on the court, but rather the way he handled himself on and off the court. I was new to the league, the Ramah Basketball Association (RBA), but quickly found myself addicted to the healthy competitiveness that had been missing in my life. To my surprise, Eric drafted me in 2012. This put me in an awkward situation because we had very similar playing styles. Eric, for whatever reason, decided to take a step back, often giving me the last shot and allowing me to play my game. This might not resonate with everyone, but it’s like Michael Jordan saying to Scottie Pippen “why don’t you take the last shot while I sit over here” (obviously to a much lesser degree). Eric’s unselfishness made him contagious and added to his positive aura.
The ironic thing about the advice the Rabbi gave me is that I probably learned as much about being a rabbi from sports as I did in rabbinical school. Sports taught me about team work, hard work, devotion, caring for others, and the list goes on and on. As player after player, teammate after teammate piled into the synagogue after his tragic passing, I witnessed more grown men cry that day than ever before. Recently, I ran into the Rabbi that gave the eulogy and thanked him for his words. Eric was a blessing to everyone who met him, and it was only because of basketball and his generous spirit that we became friends. The friends that surrounded him were completely distraught after Eric left this world.
It has been two years since Eric’s death. I have moved away, and lost touch with many of the friends that supported each other after he left us. But basketball was their link; a bond that anyone who has played competitive sports understands. My hope is that basketball, as these friends become adults, is understood as a gateway into their Judaism. Their bond through basketball catapults an affiliation back to Camp Ramah or a synagogue and hopefully their own children will get a chance to experience what they did. Their parents all made the decision to send them to camp, where they met Eric and each other. Without each other, and the court that bonded them, I think they would all agree life would be different. Sports on every level, professional, amateur, or intramural allows us to transform how we perform on the court into wins in life off the court. May this year be one where we find meaning in the lessons that shaped who we are today, and implement our greatest strengths, however we learned them, into everything we do.