Last night was my fantasy football draft. I did ok...thanks for asking. I was so nervous -- about picking the right players, about not making last season’s mistakes, about winning more games than last year.
I was struck by an article in the NY Times last Friday, entitled “Why Does Anyone Root for Incompetent, Failing Teams?” by Steve Almond. He writes from the perspective of a perennially disappointed Oakland Raiders fan, and he asks: Why? Not why are they terrible, but rather, “Why does anyone follow an incompetent, perpetually failing team?”
In his answer is the kernel of a deeply Jewish idea that might help us prepare for the HHD.
He explains that this unfailing loyalty is part of a code of values and meaning that many adopt. “The code,” he says, “had become my way of holding on to faith in the face of inevitable loss. Because not only had my team lost, but it would lose again, as all teams do, if not immediately then eventually. And this experience forms the unconscious bedrock of our identification.
“After all, we live in a culture that enforces competition and deifies success. We’re relentlessly subjected to winners, when the truth is that most of us spend our entire lives losing, or feeling anyway that we’ve failed to win it all. We squander our talent, we mismanage the clock, we choke in the clutch. Our teams, in other words, enact public dramas that we experience as struggles to transcend our own private defects. They allow us to psychically offload our sense of futility.”
Our New Year and season of repentance encourage us Jews to grapple with our defeats. To relive the dropped passes, the miscalled plays, the times we fell short.
Almond goes on to discuss Sports Talk Radio as evidence of the truth of his assertion about the spirituality of being a sports fan: “Anyone who has listened to this format will tell you that nothing lights up the phone lines like a crushing defeat. And what you hear in the callers’ voices, beneath the bluster and complaint, is actually quite moving: an effort to grapple with defeat.”
And so we do each year, beating our chests as we say, together, Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu... We have all sinned! We have all been self-defeating. We have all missed the mark. And we say, as well, Al cheit shechatanu l’fanecha... For the sin we have committed against you... -- and the list goes on and on!
If one is not careful, the high holidays can be a rather depressing prospect -- kind of like watching a highlight reel of all the worst moments of the past year, with your coach shouting in your ear that it’s only going to get worse.
But underneath all that talk of defeat, and fragility, and weakness, and even death, there is another message, which is really the point.
Almond’s words again: “So all of us idiots who stick it out with the Chicago Cubs or the Cleveland Browns or the Knicks aren’t just waiting around for a championship banner. We’re also seeking to remain loyal to the parts of ourselves that feel overmatched and doomed to failure in the hope that someday our loyalty — to our teams and to ourselves — will be rewarded.... Lurking within the weeds of extreme fandom is the perpetual seed of hope.”
Ultimately, that is the message of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. By wading through a sea of disappointment and defeat, we reach out for the opposite shore where there sits an oasis of hope, and of life.
Toward the end of Unetaneh Tokef, that most brutal of our liturgy ("who shall live and who shall die...who by fire and who by water..." and it gets gorier as it goes on), there is yet hope: U’teshuva u’tefilah u’tzedakah ma’avirin et ro’a ha-g’zerah / "Repentance, prayer, and charity avert judgment’s severe decree."
Indeed, we are taught in our tradition and in our prayers, once we make amends with others, and ask forgiveness from God, it is granted. And indeed it is what God wants -- not the death of sinners, but that we should turn from our ways and live.
So while I’m looking ahead at another NFL fantasy season, with opportunities to shine and to fall flat on my face, so too are we Jews looking ahead now to 5773, another season of our lives -- to reassess, to revisit past defeats, to brace ourselves for disappointments.
But with all of that, it is also a new season for new beginnings, an opportunity to make things better, to improve ourselves, to get more right this time around.
Almond’s article concluded: “I already have that nervous tingle about Sept. 10, when the Raiders open their season against the San Diego Chargers. There is no doubt in my mind that they will lose in some new and innovative fashion, as they did last season, in the final game, to miss the playoffs for the ninth straight year. But I’ll be watching, with the rest of the softhearted goons, hoping for a better outcome, scolding myself for this hope and happily helpless to feel otherwise.”
May the rest of Elul, and this new year, be for all of us a new season for feeling helplessly hopeful, a new year for affirming life.
Shanah tovah, Shabbat shalom!