Posted by: R Jonathan Gewirtz | September 24, 2014

How You Play the Game

Q: Why do Jews play football?

A: To get the quarter back!

As a boy growing up in New Orleans, Louisiana, I was not a baseball fan. We didn’t have a professional team in the city, and nobody played baseball at school. Football was a different story. Though one could argue that in 1980 New Orleans didn’t have a professional football team (the New Orleans Saints had one win and fifteen losses that season, earning them the dubious moniker, The ‘aints’,) we did play football in school.

I once met Archie Manning, the New Orleans quarterback, who invited me to play football with him and sons Cooper and Peyton. That would have been a cool story… “Yeah, I sacked Peyton Manning (today a highly successful professional Quarterback in the NFL)… he was 9 years old at the time. But, I can’t say that, because I never did go to play with them.

I did play on the schoolyard, though, and we used to go to football games in the Superdome. I even took my mother to a game once and as a player lay injured on the floor, she asked in perfect innocence, “Is he going to get up again?” I gained an appreciation for watching football, though I generally don’t yell and scream with each play when I’m not at the stadium itself, unlike some who will yell at the coaches and players through a TV screen or radio receiver.

Now I’m sure all this is very interesting to you but what’s it got to do with anything? Well, one evening, I heard a play on the field that made me think about this article. You see, a team had thrown a pass, and the defensive team illegally held another player, though not the receiver who actually caught the ball and scored a first down. [If you’re not a football fan, just know that they reached an intended milestone.] The referees threw a penalty flag.

This would normally mean the pass didn’t count and the offensive team would get another chance to run the play. However, if that were the case, the team would lose the yards they had advanced by a successful pass to their intended receiver. They chose to decline the penalty. By refusing to “press charges” as it were, they were entitled to keep the play that had actually occurred and they thereby benefited more than they would have by punishing the other team. Eureka!

In Krias Shema al HaMita, the bedtime Shema, there are some phrases that basically absolve people who have harmed us from blame. We say that we forgive those who have wronged us and that no one should be punished because of us. Why would we do that? Surely people should not be able to damage or harm us with impunity!
The football analogy gave me my answer. Though they could have demanded the penalty stand and the defensive team be punished, by doing so the team who was trying to advance would lose their own progress. They realized the wisdom of letting it go so they did not lose out.

HaShem treats us mida k’neged mida, measure for measure. One who is lax regarding his own honor, allowing things to slide, will in turn find himself being given a pass as well. Just as he doesn’t stand on ceremony and demand that his honor be avenged, so does HaShem allow slights to His honor to more easily be ignored.
One who doesn’t respond when he is maligned, opting instead to hold his tongue, will merit a hidden light of insight which is reserved for great tzaddikim. This is a tradition from great men such as the Vilna Gaon who told this to his wife and family in a letter. He urged them not to talk back when others spoke ill of them, assuring them that the reward for such self-control would be greater than imaginable.

As we reach the Days of Judgment, we would be wise to learn the lesson of the gridiron that sometimes it’s in your best interest not to look for a penalty. By choosing not to see someone else punished, you will end up benefiting far more.

It may seem counter-intuitive at first to say that you should give up the chance to see someone pay for what he’s done to you, but if you think about it you’ll understand that fair play doesn’t always mean following the letter of the law as to what you’re allowed to demand. Instead, if you are interested in a happy outcome for yourself, and maybe getting a few penalties of your own to slide, you’ll realize that declining the penalty, and forgiving someone who might not deserve it, is one of the best strategies for playing the game.



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