Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Super Bowl Challenge - Reflections on Parashat BeShalach 5775

(To read an earlier blog post on this parasha, click here.)

Unless you live under a rock, you know that this weekend is Super Bowl Sunday - the culmination of a football season that began last August; the match up of the two best teams in football, both vying for the rarefied title of champion.

Americans can't get enough of pro football, and they spend insane amounts of time and money on this pastime. Devotees spend twenty hours a week or more watching games during the regular season, and hours more analyzing the games, studying the stats, and preparing for the next Sunday. 

This obsession makes the NFL a lot a money - annual revenues of $10 billion, while the 32 NFL franchise teams themselves are worth a cumulative $45 billion. Beer-bellied Joes who will never throw a real football in competition fuel the 
$70 billion fantasy football industry.

Then consider a few stats about the Super Bowl itself:

- An estimated 120 million people will watch the game on Sunday - 40% of the entire country.
- A stadium seat costs upwards of $4,000; tickets on the 50 yard line, a cool $10,000.
- The airtime cost of a 30-second commercial is $4.5 million. 
- More food and alcohol are consumed in the United States on Super Bowl Sunday than on any other day of the year save Thanksgiving.

The numbers are so large that it is hard to wrap your brain around the enormity and impact of football in American life.

But what on earth does the Super Bowl have to do with the parting of the Reed Sea? 

Shemot/Exodus 14:2: "Speak to the Children of Israel and have them turn back and encamp before Pi-HaChirot, between Migdol and the Sea, opposite Baal-Zephon."

For a week after leaving Egypt, the Pillar of Cloud/Fire led the Jewish People on a seemingly random perambulation through the northeastern approaches to Egypt. Now they were instructed to encamp on a peninsula, surrounded on three sides by water, opposite Baal Zephon. 

Earlier, Gcd had promised to render judgment against the deities of Egypt, that is, to expose them all for the frauds that they were. And during the Ten Plagues, He had systematically done so, except for one: Baal Zephon, the last Egyptian god standing...

...and perhaps their most important deity. And so it was arranged that the ultimate smackdown between Gcd and Pharaoh, Israel and Egypt would take place at the foot of the shrine to Baal Zephon. The Egyptians took heart: if all the other Egyptian deities had failed them, surely Baal Zephon would rescue them in their hour of need!

What did this supremely important deity represent to the Egyptians?

Our sages teach us that Baal Zephon was the god of money. This shrine was placed on the northern trade routes into Egypt; all caravans entering Egypt had to pay heavy tribute to this god. (Can you see where I'm going with this?)

For all the talk about the game itself, the NFL is big business. Stripped of all the pageantry and accoutrements, it's all about the money. 

Now there's nothing wrong with making money. But when the profit motive is unalloyed with social and ethical considerations; when the relentless quest for short-term gain blinds the entrepreneur to long-term consequences, strategy and planning, then slash-and-burn capitalism can become idol worship, Baal Zephon.

Usually, the higher interests of ethical behavior can run together with the interests of profit. But occasionally those interests diverge, and when they do, there are decisions to be made. Each individual has to evaluate their priorities for themselves. When your boss asks you to bend the rules, to maybe cheat or steal a little to close the big sale, what will you do? Character is destiny, and lives are established or shattered on decisions such as these.

The NFL's reaction to the recent spate of player indiscretions, cheating allegations and other misbehavior clearly establishes that, so far as the NFL is concerned, that which bolsters the bottom line is to be condoned, and that which damages it is to be condemned. 

Baal Zephon. The almighty dollar is king.

Now I'm not being prudish here; I enjoy football and will probably watch the game myself. But the Super Bowl presents an opportunity to make a statement about your priorities. I wonder if the people who can find twenty hours a week for the games spend an equal amount of time studying Torah? Communing with Gcd through prayer? Doing kindnesses for their fellow man? Where do these imperatives rank in comparison to football? Where you spend your time is the truest indicator of what is really important in your life.

Here is the Super Bowl Challenge: for every hour you spend watching football, spend ten minutes studying Torah. It doesn't matter which book: pick any subject that intrigues you. The key thing is to make a statement about priorities: that however much fun football is, there are other things that are more important, more enduring, more meaningful.

Hit me up if you accept the challenge, and let me know how you do. 

I'm rooting for you.

Shabbat Shalom.


  1. Shuk, I can't wait to show this to Mike! You forgot to mention that in addition to all the things you mentioned that die-hard fans do, they also watch the games of their rival teams to hopefully see them lose, and watch games of teams (not theirs) that may impact of the standing the team they root for. I love the message to take stock of how we spend our time. That really hits home. Have a wonderful Shabbos, and hugs to you all!

    1. So true, Gab! Wishing all of you a fab Shabbat & a super Superbowl Sunday! Miss you guys! xo

  2. The ultimate Torah Touchdown! Love it!