Erev Rosh Hashanah 5776: “The 8 Things I Have Learned about Life and Teshuvah from the Seattle Seahawks”

There are many things that come with growing older. As I completed my 42nd year this past July, I continue to note the changes that occur as we get older. Our bodies don’t bounce back like they used to, our hairlines don’t bounce back like they used to.

One thing I have noticed, though, is that despite the conventional wisdom that we become more set in our ways as we grow older, there is the reality that our tastes do change. Things that were once avoided or ignored are now embraced.

Take, for example, lemon bars. I used to not be fond of lemon desserts. But now I love the tart and the sweet together. And so while I don’t think I will ever eat peas, I do have an affinity for desserts I used to avoid.

And another change in taste I have noticed as I get older, is a more deeply felt fondness for and an appreciation of the game of football.

As you know, I am a fan of the game of baseball, growing up with the Yankees and also turning my attention, regretfully perhaps, to the Mariners. Football was never my game. And though every Sunday my father would turn on the television to football—the Giants and Jets especially—I wouldn’t particularly pay attention. I would drift in and out of the den on those Sundays, and generally reserve my interest in football to the annual viewing of the Super Bowl, which was more a party than anything else.

In the past few years, however that has changed. Spurred on perhaps by the ascendance of the Seattle Seahawks, combined with our smaller Pacific Northwest community which results in a more tightly held relationship with its professional sports teams, I have become intrigued by and enamored of the game of football. I have found myself doing interesting things, like recording games when I needed to be at Sunday school or another commitment. Or listening to the game on the radio. Or watching highlight videos over and over again. And while mindful of the risk and violence involved in the game, where once there was indifference, I now marvel at the strategy, the athleticism, and the teamwork of the game of football.

On this Rosh Hashanah, this time that we examine where we have come and where we are going, how we have grown and how we have yet to grow, it is perhaps enough to say that with the passing of the years we do change. We do develop new interests, our capacity to learn and adapt is ever present. We are not set in our ways. But there is more to it than that. For we have the ability to learn as well, to glean from our experiences, our observations.

And so, as is my wont, on Erev Rosh Hashanah, I like to share with you things that I have learned about life and about teshuvah (repentance) in the past year.

I have stood here in the past and shared lists with you what I have learned from having a child, from having a backhoe hit my house, from hitting a car in a parking lot, from planting a garden, from Legos, from taking a sabbatical, from having brain surgery, from 10 years in the congregational rabbinate and so on. The list keeps getting longer.

And so, and with apologies to those who don’t like sports or feel that maybe sports analogies are too cliché, I present the eight things I learned about teshuvah, and life, from the Seattle Seahawks.

Photo from seattlepi.com
Photo from seattlepi.com

Number one: No one play makes the whole game. I will get this one over with quickly, but we can recall the final play of the Super Bowl. The Seahawks were down 28-24, and with 26 seconds left had the ball on the Patriots’ 1 yard line, a touchdown would have won the game, giving the Hawks their second consecutive championship. Russell Wilson dropped back to pass, and threw the ball into the endzone, right into the hands of Malcolm Butler of the Patriots for an interception. Game over, the Seahawks lose. It was an excruciating moment.

It is easy to say that the Seahawks lost the game on that final play, and we can debate if they should have given the ball to Marshawn Lynch to run it in (hopefully) to the end zone. But it is important to remember that the game was lost not on that final play. It was lost because of the sum total of everything that had transpired over four quarters of play. Every turnover, every score, every running play, every pass contributed to the final outcome. And while we can say, “if only…” about that last play that could have changed the outcome, we can ultimately say “if only” about any play of the game.

Our lives, too, are made up of many decisions, choices. No one action defines us. We commit on these holidays to do more, to grow, to move forward, to make better and different choices. Teshuvah is the act of saying what happened in my past is a part of who I am but does not necessarily define who I am. What defines me is how I write the whole story of my life, and not just one episode. No one play makes the whole game.

Number two: Play your position. Most sports have “positions”—players play a particular role on a team. But it strikes me that football has more specialized positions. While in baseball for example players play both offence and defense, in football players play either/or. And there are different types of defenders, for example. And beyond that, there are the special teams, even more specialized positions, people who are good at punt returns, or ball holders for place kickers.

Each player, then, has the ability to specialize. To find what he is good at and work to perfect it. And the teams work better when each player is individually able to perfect himself at his position. Rookie Tyler Lockett will work to become the best wide receiver, he won’t try to become the best quarterback, or offensive lineman, or even all around football player.

We can’t do everything, we all have our positions to play. We in our lives should try to specialize: There are things that we are good at, and things that we are not so great at. Our job perhaps is to find out what those things are, and work towards them. We try to become the best us we can be—that is, in part, the work of these High Holidays.

There is that famous story of Rabbi Zusya, the Hasidic master, which comes to mind: when he was on his deathbed he drew his disciples near and told them about the particular fear he felt. He said to them, “when I die and meet God, God will not ask me, ‘Zusya, why were you not Moses.’ Rather God will ask, ‘Zusya, why were you not Zusya?’”

Or as Richard Sherman was recently quoted as saying, in a New York Times article about the Seahawks and their mindfulness practice: “It’s simple here: Be yourself, play hard, and you’ll be fine.”

Find and play your position. And then learn and grow and strive to be the best at it.

And similarly, number three: While you should play your position, sometimes don’t. For me, the highlight of this past season was in the NFC championship game against the Green Bay Packers in the third quarter with the Seahawks down 16-0. The Seahawks lined up to kick a field goal, attempting to score their first points of the game. After the snap, punter Jon Ryan, who was there to hold the ball for the kick, instead picked it up, broke left and ran with the ball, lobbing a pass to tackle Garry Gilliam for a touchdown.

It was a trick play, in which the Seahawks did something that was unexpected, a surprise. And it worked because those who carried it out were willing to break out of their traditional roles and positions to do something different. Punters usually don’t throw passes, and tackles usually don’t receive passes (indeed, their position names give pretty clear indication about what they do). But with ingenuity and practice, they were able to transcend these usual positions, do something different and score.

So too, as we find our positions in life, we sometimes need to transcend those positions to do something different, to grow in new ways. We need to move beyond our comfort zones in order to discover new things about ourselves and what we are capable. And that may be hard. But as I learned recently, there is no growth in the comfort zones, and no comfort in the growth zones. We have our roles to fill, but sometime our greatest successes come from the unexpected, by doing something differently and pushing ourselves.

And sometimes we are forced into new positions by circumstances. We may spring the unexpected on others, but sometimes the unexpected finds us. Here too we must remain flexible enough to do things differently when we need to, to respond to life’s challenges.

That play during the NFC championship might not have been the prettiest play, but it worked. And sometimes life isn’t pretty, but we make it work.

Number four: Play for your teammate. Thinking back on this past season and its successes, we may tend to forget that the Seahawks did not start out so strong. While they had a winning record after the first 10 games, they were at 6-4 and struggling. After losing to the Kansas City Chiefs to get to 6-4, there was a turn around, and looking back on the season, many credit the turn around to a team meeting that occurred after that game.

At this meeting, two things happened: one, some of those players who had not normally taken vocal leadership roles spoke out to rally the team. And two, the message that came out of that meeting was not just play better, or do your best, or try harder, but, simply, “we play for each other.” Keep your egos in check and “play for each other.”

Regarding that meeting, Coach Pete Carroll was quoted at the time: “We made a real nice shift and took a nice step forward to getting to where we want to get. Guys were totally giving themselves to one and another and they played for each other and it showed up. It was something that was most powerful in an team setting and everybody felt it.”

And after that meeting, they won the next six games.

In this life, we play for each other. We have our own paths, our own journeys. But to think that we are doing this alone is a fallacy. We live for ourselves, yes, but that is not all for whom we live. People depend on us and we depend on others. We live in community, in relationship. This is important to remember when we are struggling, because we know we are able to reach out for help and support. But this is also important to remember when we are succeeding, because we must remember that our success is not due solely to our own effort, but to the many people who have brought us to where we are, either directly or indirectly. We play—we live—for each other. Who do you live for? And who lives for you?

And as we play for eachother, we pray for each other. As we enter these holidays, we note that so much of the liturgy is written in the plural. We, not I. We have sinned, we atone, we reconcile, we commit, we thank. We.

Similarly, number five: the 12th man is just as important as the other 11. We may be familiar with the culture of the 12th Man: flags adorned with a big number 12 signify Seahawks fandom, jerseys with the number 12 are as available as that of any player’s number. The 12 signifies the Seahawks fan base—as there are 11 players on the field at any one time, the 12th Man—the fan collective—is the 12th person on the field and is meant to be as important as any other player. In other words, the team is complete not with 11 but with 12.

This is manifest in many ways. Although I haven’t been to a game at CenturyLink Field yet, the noise levels at the stadium are, from what I understand, tremendous, enough to throw off opposing teams. But in addition to this particular manifestation, the simple idea that the fan base is as much a part of the success of the team as any of the players on the team is a way of building connection, community and support.

Similarly in Judaism we have the notion of the 10th person. The tradition of the minyan—Ten Jews needed to make a prayer community—has ancient roots. It is not to say that one could not pray without 10, but 10 are needed for certain fundamental prayers such as the Mourner’s Kaddish–the prayer for those in grief–and to read the Torah in community. It is therefore a special mitzvah to be the 10th person, the one who completes the quorum, who makes the community.

But you can not be the 10 without showing up, and you can not be the 10th unless nine others also show up. We need to live our lives in community, each member of the 10 is as important as any other.

Aim to be the 12th Man, aim to be the 10th. Do not distance yourself from your community. For it is by showing up in community that we are fully realized.

Number six: Even if your suspension is lifted, it doesn’t mean you are innocent. Ok, so this one isn’t about the Seahawks, but about the Patriots. As you may have heard, this year the NFL confronted “Deflategate” a story so big it even made the Israeli newspapers when I was there a few months ago. Tom Brady, the quarterback of the New England Patriots was accused of deflating footballs to be used in the AFC championship game, keeping them below the limit of air pressure in order to make them easier to throw, and thus gain an advantage. The NFL through an inquiry determined that the Patriots had deflated the balls, and determined that Tom Brady, while he may not have deflated the balls himself, knew about it and covered up evidence. And, along with further punishment levied against the team, Brady was suspended for 4 games.

Upon appeal, a judge overturned the suspension on a technical point having to do with the players agreement and the league. But the question still remains about what happened. And while Brady got what he want—reinstatement—many others didn’t get what they want, an honest accounting of what happened.

The reinstatement is a technicality. It is not teshuvah. For teshuvah is less about external consequences as it is about internal reckoning. When we stray, when we do wrong, oftentimes there are external consequences. But sometimes there are not external consequences. But just because we may not get punished, or we may evade censure, that doesn’t mean our teshuvah is complete. To fully bring about teshuvah we need to be honest with ourselves, the inner work is the most important work.

When we are accountable to ourselves, we do that we will be able to make amends with others. When we are accountable to ourselves, it won’t matter if there were external consequences or not. If there are, we will be able to handle them. Because things internally would have been made right.

Number seven: Punting is OK. Football is unique in that it is part of the strategy and normal course of play to turn the ball over to the other team. In baseball each team takes turns in the field and at bat, hockey and basketball possession changes hands regularly. In football, you can choose to punt—to kick the ball to the other team to give them the opportunity to try to score.

One doesn’t just punt for the sake of punting, of course. A team will punt if they are in bad field position, unable to make a first down, or advance the ball downfield enough. To punt is saying its safer to give the ball away then try something too risky. To punt is to say, we have tried, we did not succeed, so we need to wait until another opportunity in which we have a better chance to score.

We too are going to try, and we are going to fail. It is a natural part of our lives. We are going to come up short, miss the mark, be in a bad position. And that is ok. We are going to need to punt—to give up, to modify our goals, to accept difficult outcomes, to admit that the course we have been pursuing is not going to work for us, and we need to do something different.

Punting is not quitting. Punting is a reorganization, it is a strategic decision in response to certain events, it is saying I need to regroup, my current course of action is not fruitful, so I need to minimize the risk so that I can find a new course to pursue.
Don’t be afraid to punt. It just might be what you need to do to ultimately be successful.

And the eighth and last thing I learned about life from the Seattle Seahawks: Football is a game of yards, except when it is a game of inches.

Yards, the unit of measurement (3 feet), is the fundamental measurement of football. A football field is 100 yards long. As one tries to get the ball downfield to the end zone to score, yards are fundamental. Ball position is based on the yard line. It is 10 yards to a first down to be able to continue play. Plays are measured by how many yards are gained. And individual statistics are measure in yards: passing yards or rushing yards or kicking yards.

One hundred yards is a long field. The greatest plays are those that gain the most yardage. Football is therefore in many ways a long game.

We too, play the long game. When we examine our lives, we can recognize and see the changes we have undergone, especially if we look over a longer period of time. We are not the same people we were ten years ago. And when we get stuck, when we begin to feel bad about where we are, we can also recognize that we will not be in the same place ten years from now. We need to take the long view of who we have been, who we are and who we can be. Change will come, teshuvah will work—we recognize this if we take the long view.

There are sometimes, however, when football is measured in inches. Sometimes, when a team advances the ball towards a first down and comes up just short, within one yard, the ball position is said to be 2nd down, for example, and inches.

Football is measured in yards. But there are sometimes when it is measured in inches.

And so too with us. Life is also a game of inches. While we look at the long narrative, and see how we grow and change over time, we also remember that those long narratives are made up of small moments. Every small moment is an opportunity for transformation. Every moment is a decision about how to act, a weighing of choices, and opportunity to do what is right or not.

There is a passage from the Talmud, found in our Mahzor, appropriate for this:

Each one of us should always consider ourselves evenly balanced, that is half sinful and half righteous. If we perform one mitzvah we should be joyous, for we have tilted the scales towards righteousness. If we commit one sin we should be remorseful, for we have tilted the scale toward sinfulness.

The small moments we create make a difference. And the small moments that happen to us also make a difference. We don’t know what can change our lives. A chance encounter. A story on the radio. These are little discrete moments have the power to fundamentally change who you are—something you learned or someone you met can change to course of your life, but only if you are open to it.

Play the long game, write your life’s narratives over a (hopefully) long time, remembering that just as things are now, does not mean they will continue to be. This is the work of teshuvah, that we can always reinvent, redo, renew.

And play the short game as well. We do what we can to affect change and teshuvah—in ourselves and in our world—when we make every moment, every inch, every encounter matter, and see each as a chance to learn, to grow, to change.

So, on these High Holidays, we echo another motto of the Seahawks: “I’m in.” I’m in.

Take the long view. Play your position. Break the mold. Be there for others. Show up. Go inside. Punt if necessary. And make every moment count.

Because every moment counts.

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