As coach of Rockland’s 16U basketball team in the JCC Maccabi Games last week, I saw my fair share of good refereeing; I also saw some really bad calls. Some went in our team’s favor and some went against us. Some calls were inconsequential to the game’s outcome and some changed the game’s momentum and possibly affected the results. I encountered coaches drawing technical fouls for inapproprate behavior (none for me!), and coaches bantering with the refs as if they knew each other well.
This week’s Torah portion instructs us to appoint judges who will administer the just application of our societal rules. Our society’s referees are commanded to rule justly, to shun partiality and to avoid the appearance of impropriety. It is a tall task, however, to ask judges to remain totally impartial. I certainly don’t expect a referee to give any of my players the benefit of the doubt if they are being disrespectful in any way to the referee, another player, or the game itself! In the same vein, why would an umpire want to make a call that I am expecting if all I do is complain about every call?
On a far more emotional level, how can an umpire not get caught up in the approving roar of the crowd or the emotional swell of a game’s momentum? What referee doesn’t get angry when voices from the sideline or the crowd are constantly berating them for the job they are doing? And what person won’t harbor some resentment from one bad set of interactions to the next encounter?
I instruct all my players that I will be the only one to address the referees. I greet them with a handshake. During the game, I ask for explanations of a ruling, as opposed to being overtly critical. I point out inconsistency in the application of the rules. I suggest that certain infractions by the opposing team be watched more carefully. And after the game, my players shake the hands of the “judges” and thank them for their service.
Sounds good, right? But what about the fact that I do all these things with the added hope that it will gain some measure of favor for my team? Am I not striving for some measure of impartiality, a psychological bribe of sorts?
In our day and age, there is more and more emphasis on instant replay, on removing the human element from the application of the rules. Removing the human, however, also means removing the humanity from the equation. In this month of Elul and in the time of judgment that is a few weeks away, we ask God to move from the seat of justice to the seat of mercy. We don’t want to be held to the strict application of the rules. We want a ref who will let us travel, or carry, or commit a foul once in a while without getting called for it. We want a judge who will, in fact, be partial to our humanity.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Nine- and ten-year old athletes crowded into the gymnasium, each JCC delegation sporting a different color. They nervously fiddled with their gloves and rackets, either trying not to look at their opponents around the court, or staring down the competition they would soon be facing. (Or perhaps they were just checking out each other’s $130 shoes?!)
As the mini-athletes took the field for the opening ceremony this past Sunday, they smiled large for the cameras, proudly displaying their hometown banners, clearly excited about kicking off the first (hopefully annual!) JCC Mini-Maccabi Games. Welcoming the 200-plus athletes and their families (from as far away as Baltimore) to JCC Rockland, I asked them if they knew the Hebrew word chaver. “Friend,” many of them exuberantly called back to me. Actually, they were 9 and 10, so it sounded more like “frieeeeeeend!” Yes, friend.
But to the teachers of our tradition, I explained, the word chaver meant much more than someone with whom we play and socialize. The chaver is also our competition, the one who challenges us to be our best, the one who forces us to refine our strengths and inspires us to give our best effort. In the Jewish tradition, we learn with a chaver who will not always agree with us or accept our argument. Our study partner is expected to push back, to challenge our assumptions, to introduce us to new ways of thought.
On the fields of play, our teammates may indeed be our friends and playmates. They may also, however, force us to grow, challenge us to be better, and sometimes require us to face our shortcomings. And the same may be true of our opponents. If they care about us and our development (and that is an important Jewish assumption in this equation), they too may be our chaverim. They may teach us how to win and lose graciously, help us develop resilience, remind us how much harder we must work if we expect to succeed.
Not everyone can be a winner all the time. And we need not–and should not–protect our children from the experience of losing in life. Certainly we want them to experience success in areas that bring them satisfaction. As parents, teachers and mentors it is our job to help our children find situations where they will experience success, or at a minimum help them learn confidence, recognize growth and feel satisfaction in their efforts. It is also our responsibility, however, to to teach them how to own and use failure.
Whether you win or lose, it is NOT how you play the game. It’s about what the experience of playing teaches you about yourself. That’s what a worthy and true chaver–even one on the opposing team–can help you learn.
Rabbi Craig Scheff