I watch ESPN while I’m at the gym. Not having cable at home, it’s my chance a few times a week to stay up to date on the world of sports (and keep up with my sons, who manage to find out sports information more quickly than I can).
As I stood on the elliptical machine and turned on SportsCenter this morning, the show was featuring clips of Denver quarterback Tim Tebow. Tebow has achieved notoriety for his very open expressions of Christian faith on and off the football field. And in the clips that they showed on ESPN, Tebow was wearing a microphone during the game. Here was Tim Tebow sitting on the sidelines, humming a hymn to himself. And here was Tebow exhorting his teammates to play hard and win. And here was Tebow “Tebowing,” kneeling and praying after his team’s overtime victory against the Chicago Bears.
Segue to my son Jonah’s basketball camp this week, which is organized and run by Tamir Goodman. Goodman, you may recall, was the subject of a four-page spread in Sports Illustrated and dubbed the “Jewish Jordan” as an Orthodox high school phenom in the late 1990s. Tamir was signed by the University of Maryland and ultimately played at Towson University, which changed their schedule to enable him to avoid playing on Shabbat. He went on to a pro career in Israel, and retired a couple years ago after injuries.
Now Tamir is running basketball camps (Natalie’s project, the iChallenge Ideas Incubator, is sponsoring this community-wide one in Chicago). He is shameless in teaching Judaism and Jewish values through basketball. He wears his kippah on the court. He gets a minyan together to daven mincha (he’s saying kaddish for his father). He highlights how Jewish ideas are mirrored in the ethics of team play, discipline, communication, respect, and all the other middot that it takes to be both a good person and a good player.
Tamir tells lots of stories about how his insistence on keeping Shabbat, keeping kosher, and unabashedly being a traditional Jew, became a kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of God’s name in public. His teammates, opponents, fans, and the general public encountered a very public Jew, and learned about traditional Jewish life, as a result of his remaining true to his commitments. Most dramatically, his willingness to give back a full-ride scholarship to Maryland, after the school’s failure to alter its schedule in order to be Shabbat-friendly, made a dramatic statement: Shabbat is fundamental, and no career move is worth sacrificing it.
I see a lot of similarities between Tim Tebow and Tamir Goodman. The NCAA created a “Tebow Rule,” banning writing on eye paint, after Tebow wore “John 3:16″ under his eyes in the 2009 national championship game and 92 million people Googled the verse (a silly rule, in my opinion; how many people would have Googled yarmulke if Tamir Goodman had made it to the Final Four? What’s wrong with trying to do a kiddush Hashem?). With his unashamed commitment to his faith, Tebow is creating a kiddush Hashem in his own religious community, and, like Goodman, showing that religious faith can be deeply woven into a modern life.
Parshat Miketz marks the low-point of Joseph’s running away from his own culture. The parsha opens with the dramatic transformation of Joseph from a prisoner to the second-ranking figure in Egypt. Pharaoh gives Joseph clothes, his ring, his chariot, and a wife of high social station–all the trappings of “making it.” Joseph names his first-born Menashe, because “God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household” (Gen. 41:51). Though Pharaoh’s steward remembers Joseph as an Ivri, a Hebrew–one who is “across,” or over or against–Joseph is ultimately unrecognizable to his brothers when they arrive, and he speaks through an interpreter. To his brothers, Joseph is an Egyptian.
What would have happened if Joseph had insisted on maintaining his identity as an Ivri a little more than he did? What if he had said no to Pharaoh? Presumably no one says no to Pharaoh. But presumably no one says no to the University of Maryland basketball program, and four free years of college, either. Joseph was actually in a strong negotiating position, but he didn’t use it. He simply accepted what was offered to him. While he maintained a strong inner sense of faith (as exemplified in the naming of his second son, Ephraim: “It is because God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering,” Gen. 41:52), he made his identity a private affair. This put him in a position to help his brothers in the end, but also potentially contributed to the simmering negative feelings among the Egyptians towards the Hebrews.
Chabad has embraced this message as the message of Hannukah: Maintain particularity. Don’t assimilate. Be proud to be Jewish. The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s life was the inverse of Joseph’s: The Rebbe was the only one of his siblings to remain religiously observant.
(His daughter was his only blood relative to attend his funeral. N.B. Stan Mazo reminds me of the obvious: the seventh Rebbe had no children. I had heard this story in a lecture by Rabbi Aharon Rakeffet, and will check on which Rebbe he was referring to.) Chabad has taken up his message, and it is their greatest contribution to the Jewish people. Hannuukah is indeed a time to be proud, to be out, to be open about our particularities. As Tamir Goodman reminds us, and as Tim Tebow shows too, we have nothing to hide and a great deal to gain in living an undivided life.
Shabbat Shalom and Hannukah Sameach.