Shabbat Morning Quarterback: My Take on the Seahawks Loss

“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.superbowl

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.

Sharing a Playbook? Rabbis and the Seahawks

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.sherman

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.