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Toward Shabbat: Tetzaveh

117 million. 

That’s the number of people expected to watch the Super Bowl this Sunday evening. It’s more than the number of Americans who go to church on an average Sunday (73 million). And more than the number of Americans who watched the final presidential debate of 2020 (63 million).

More people are paying attention to this event than to just about anything else going on in the country. Whether you find the game of football compelling or not, this number should prompt us to ask: What are people paying attention to? 

I’ve been watching an increasing amount of football over the past few seasons, as my children are becoming avid fans and we’ve come to enjoy watching games together as a family on Sunday afternoons. My critiques of the culture and business of the NFL remain abundant, but I’ve tried to be curious and reflective about the game itself—and it’s been pretty eye opening.

It’s true that football is a brutal sport. But if you reduce its attraction to being a modern equivalent of gladiator events at the Colosseum, you’re missing the storylines that run beneath the physicality—storylines that inspire and captivate the imagination, and that have some enduring wisdom to offer.

Take the Cincinnati Bengals. This team will play in the Super Bowl for only the third time in NFL history, and the first time in 33 years. Only two years ago, they lost 14 out of 16 games; no one expected them to be at the top of the standings this season.

But theirs is not just a story about an underdog turning things around through hard work and perseverance. It’s part of a larger narrative that ran through this season’s playoffs—a narrative of transformation and possibility. Consider that two of the six playoff games went into overtime and three others were won in the final seconds of regulation play; imagine the stress and anxiety of those final moments. And in the edgiest of edge-of-your-seat games, the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs traded the lead three times in the last two minutes of their game, sending fans and players alike on a breathtaking (literally!) emotional rollercoaster. 

I imagine that the uncertainty of these games’ final moments could have been overwhelming. Humans are wired to prefer clarity, even if what’s clear is something undesirable. For example, when the Bills took the lead with 13 seconds left in the game, it would have been psychologically easier for the Chiefs to accept a loss rather than fight for a win. To throw in the towel and say, “13 seconds?! Forget it, there’s no way we can score.” Instead, they saw those last 13 seconds—a tiny window—not as a countdown to certain defeat, but as 13 seconds in which the outcome could go either way. And they stayed in the game, turning that uncertainty into possibility, and possibility into success.

This is the Torah I’ve learned from the playoffs, the life lesson I’m trying to take to heart and to impress upon my children: Champions don’t collapse in the face of uncertainty; in fact, they embrace seemingly certain moments as uncertain, and transform them into the possibility of victory.

This, perhaps, is what all the hugging is about at the end of a football game. Those handshakes and hugs between fierce competitors express deep respect for one another (another life lesson we could all stand to learn) as well as respect for the noble effort—the willingness to stay in the game and the resilience to make every play one of possibility.

So–Happy Super Bowl, America. Here’s to embracing uncertainty, and to being open to what may emerge.

P.S.: If you’re not sure who to root for on Sunday and want Jewish wisdom as your guide, consider that in the Torah rams are constantly being slaughtered on the altar, while the Sages teach that tigers are an attested danger (Mishnah Bava Kamma 1:4). Go Bengals!