Well, we know how things turned out last Sunday, don’t we.
In a spectacular display of prowess, the Seattle Seahawks dominated the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl, winning the championship by a score of 43 to 8. Just like for the NFC championship, I was out of Washington at a conference during the game. Unlike the NFC championship, this time I had the opportunity to watch. There I was in a retreat center outside Baltimore with a gathering of rabbis, cheering on the Seahawks to victory.
The conference was the annual alumni gathering of the Rabbis Without Borders fellowship. I participated in the fellowship—a program of CLAL—two years ago as a member of the third rabbinic cohort. Then 20+ rabbis gathered several times a year in New York to discuss issues affecting contemporary culture and Judaism, and how we can be responsive change agents. Since completing the fellowship I have “graduated” to the alumni group, which meets annually to continue and deepen these conversations and connections. It is at Rabbis Without Borders where I have had some of the most compelling conversations about Judaism, the rabbinate and contemporary society.
OK, back to the Seahawks. Following the game, I have read analysis about the meaning of the win for Seattle, the power of sports to draw together communities and, most interesting, the on-field strategy of how the Seahawks won. I say this last one is most interesting because for me, I would normally and naturally gravitate to the first two (cultural) explorations. Looking more deeply at football statistics and strategies is new to me.
Going into the game, one of the well known statistics is that the Seahawks had the best defenses in the league. This was measured by the number of yards allowed over the course of the season. The Broncos on the other hand had the best offense in the league, measured by yards gained. It was the first time that such a match up occurred with the largest discrepancy between yards allowed by one team and yards gained by another. As the results showed, the Seahawks defense overwhelmed the Broncos offense.
Interestingly enough, however, a major Super Bowl record was set during the game. Peyton Manning, the celebrated quarterback of the Broncos who already had a Superbowl win under his belt, set a record for most pass completions in a championship game. In other words, despite losing and not scoring beyond one touchdown and two-point conversion, Manning was able to successfully pass the ball downfield 33 times, the most in Superbowl history.
How can these two facts co-exist? The answer is in how the Seattle defense played. The defense didn’t put out an all out assault on Manning, but applied enough pressure that he resorted to short passes. And when those passes were made, a Seahawks defender (or two) was on hand to tackle him. The Seahawks defense was there, ready and waiting to make the play needed. On some plays it seemed that it was barely a second between the time a Broncos receiver caught a ball that he was hit and on the ground, resulting in little to no yard gain.
Back to Rabbis Without Borders. One of the overall themes to think about that I took away from the gathering was the overall role that we play as rabbis in the work that we do in light of a constantly shifting Jewish community. Demographics shift, sure, but also in reaction to the general culture shift we are experiencing. Identities we learn don’t exist on binaries anymore (i.e., you are either this or that), and how one constructs one’s identity is fluid and dynamic. The up and coming generations view things differently than the generations before. The questions these conversations raised for me are: Are we leading the way? Or just responding to facts on the ground? Or, is there even a sharp distinction between the two? (remember, watch those binaries!) And how do we serve everyone, with their own needs, interests, opinions and self-identification?
How do we do this work in light of these changing circumstances? Maybe we should be taking a cue from the Seahawks defense: We can exert the pressure and influence that we can, yet still allow people the space they need to move forward. And just be ready to meet them where they are on their journey.
If we do this, then unlike in football, those we meet are sure to win, not lose.