Monday, December 6, 2010

Wisdom from the Broncos (Portion Va-yigash)

Reb Nachum, the son of the Rebbe of Rizhyn famously taught a life lesson by way of the three rules of checkers:

1. You can’t make two moves at once.

2. You can only move forward and not backward

3. Once you reach the last row, you can move wherever you want.

In that spirit, this week I am offering two Torah teachings gleaned from an important local source of inspiration: Boise State football.

Part One: We Are Not Defined By Our Failures (aka Teshuvah Springs Eternal)

When Kyle Brotzman missed two clutch field goals at the end of the Nevada game, I immediately thought of my old teammate on the Thomas Jefferson High School Fighting Colonials, Scott Norwood. Scott went on to a distinguished NFL career with the Buffalo Bills—and in 1991, he missed the last second kick that could have won the Super Bowl.

Scott Norwood refused to let that mistake define his life. He has since raised three children and launched a successful second career in business. As writer Karl Greenfeld notes in his 2004 Sports Illustrated article on Scott: “The measure of a man should not be his worst moments. . . It is how we deal with those moments that makes us who we are, and that is the most American measure of success: to fail once, to pick yourself up, and try again.”

In this week’s Torah portion, Va-yigash, Judah shows that he is prepared to sacrifice his own life for his younger brother Benjamin. Thus the man who earlier sealed the deal to sell another brother, Joseph, into slavery comes to embody the possibility of teshuvah—of real and enduring transformation. The word “Jew” (yehudi) is derived from “Judah” (yehudah). We are, by name and character, a people who, rather than being defined by our failures, see them as opportunities for growth.

Part Two: Faking It

In Sunday’s Idaho Statesman, sportswriter Brian Murphy notes that throughout the week following their devastating loss to Nevada, the Broncos had a tough time getting motivated. So how did Coach Chris Petersen prepare his team for Saturday’s game against Utah State? His strategy was both straightforward and brilliant: fake it. In Coach Pete’s own words: “You can’t go to practice without tremendous energy. We demand it and if they’re not feeling it, we tell them, ‘Fake it.’ Because eventually you’re going to start feeling it.”

The coach must be channeling his secret inner talmudist, because a famous talmudic teaching asserts: “me-toch sh’lo lishma ba lishma—If you do the right thing for the wrong reason, without real sincerity or intention, you will eventually end up doing it sincerely.” So the best way to change your behavior is. . . to start changing your behavior. It doesn’t matter if, at first, your heart is not in it. Once we get in the habit of doing the right thing, the intention will follow.

In other words—when in doubt, fake it.

A continued happy Chanukah to all, and, of course, good luck to the Broncos in the MAACO Bowl in Las Vegas.