“The thing you are doing is not good.”
These are the words spoken by Jethro to his son-in-law Moses in this week’s Torah portion. The Israelites are settling into their new life since leaving Egypt and adjusting to being a newly freed community. Moses is adjudicating all of the disputes of the Israelites, who line up all day and all night to present their grievances. This prompts Jethro’s response, who advises Moses to set up a more efficient court system.
“The thing you are doing is not good.” These words are a variation of what has been repeated all week, after the stunning loss of the Seattle Seahawks in the Superbowl. In the final seconds of a thrilling game, the Seahawks found themselves down by four points with the ball on the Patriots one yard line. A touchdown would win the game. On second down, quarterback Russell Wilson dropped back to pass, and the Patriots intercepted. The game was over with a heartbreaking loss after being so close to victory.
What made the loss that much painful is the choice to throw the ball in the first place. The Seahawks have one of the best running backs in the NFL, Marshawn Lynch, known as “Beast Mode.” Lynch, who can barrel forward bringing defenders with him. Lynch, whose strength and skill is seemingly made for this type of play. Why did the coaches decide to throw the ball instead of just running it into the end zone?
Since the game I have read way too much commentary and analysis on the play. Some are calling it the worst call in Superbowl history. Others analyze the thought process and understand why a passing play might have been appropriate. One of the more interesting articles analyzed the call in relation to game theory. But in any event, whether it was a bad call, or a bad execution or both—the Seahawks came very close to winning a second Superbowl and blew it in the end.
Not long before the Superbowl, I came back from a retreat with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, as part of my 18-month Clergy Leadership Program. It was an amazing experience of prayer, song, meditation, yoga and study. And now, as I am back from retreat, I continue learning with a weekly hevruta (study partner).
[I should say that my hevruta is a rabbi in the Boston area, and he showed up to our weekly Skype session this week wearing a Patriots jersey. Sigh.]
The theme of our study is an examination of middot (character traits) that we are meant to focus on and inculcate within ourselves. The practice is to make us better people, and thus better leaders. The study is drawn from Jewish texts, mostly from the Hasidic tradition, but we also read a wonderful article by the contemporary spiritual writer Parker Palmer.
In that article, Leading from Within, Palmer identifies 5 “shadows”—or negative traits—that affect leaders today. One is—in a beautiful phrase—“functional atheism.” That is, the belief that responsibility rests solely with me as an individual. Our IJS teachers have presented us with five middot that are meant to balance the shadows. The middah that my hevruta and I studied this week that is meant to “counter” that shadow is bitachon, or trust.
Why trust? As I understand it, it is because when we live under the shadow of functional atheism, we operate under the assumption that we are the only one that matters. That whatever we do or don’t do is the sum total of everything, that it all begins and ends with us. But this is misguided, it is an ego response. Having trust—in God, in the greater system, in each other—allows us to understand that it isn’t all about us, but that we are part of a larger whole that works in ways that sometimes we can not fully understand. Having trust allows us to see beyond ourselves, and understand that nothing can be reduced to one thing, one act, one person, one choice.
So here is my Superbowl analysis: No game can be defined by one call, one play. In sports, we tend to need a “goat,” someone to blame when things go wrong. But that is the wrong response. The game could have been different at many different times. The Patriots quarterback Tom Brady threw an end zone interception which could have been a touchdown. There are other plays that could have turned out differently, other choices that would have had different results. Just because they didn’t happen at the end of the game doesn’t mean they didn’t have an effect on the outcome.
That last play didn’t lose the game any more than it would have won it if it was successful. The Seahawks unfortunately lost because of everything that happened on that field. And heartbreaking as the loss was, we can have trust that a team is not just defined by one play or one game.
And there is always next season.