How the NFL Made Me Appreciate Judaism

Rabbi Kress meets a fellow Philadelphia fan in a Prague Synagogue, while staffing NFTY in Israel in 2011.

Rabbi Kress meets a fellow Philadelphia fan in a Prague Synagogue, while staffing NFTY in Israel in 2011.

Yesterday kicked off this NFL preseason and football is back. Fans across the country rejoiced, myself included, to see our autumn, Sunday ritual within sight. You see, there is nothing quite like the camaraderie of a city and fan base coalescing around a common passion, a common love, a common ritual. The tangible sense of tradition unites individuals into a community. We say, "We lost the game." As a city. They didn't lose the game, as a team.  We all lost.

When you see a stranger on the street in your team's swag, you're instantly connected. When you're in a different city, or a different country even, and you spot through a crowd that symbol of home, that symbol of passion, that symbol of camaraderie, you yell out to them! They return the greeting, the cheer, the love. And somehow, you feel a sense of home in a faraway place, in which you and this stranger have each other's back because that's what you do for a fellow fan.

And this exultation, this sense of community, this higher purpose starts anew every year at this time. The civic religion many of us call the NFL begins its religious calendar with the promise and hope of a new season, a better season where our teams just might make the Super Bowl, and we are sure to get in arguments over our team's supremacy with our family and friends.

I am a diehard NFL fan, and as I wrote this drash, the parallels of the NFL's civic religion to Judaism struck me. Have you ever stopped to think that as a society, we watch football more religiously on Sundays than keep Shabbat with our families? Have you ever thought that as a society we've become more knowledgeable about meaningless statistics than our own tradition and history? 

I'm the first to admit my guilt in this regard. I have gone to great lengths not to miss football every week while, for the most part, expending little effort not to miss Shabbat here or there. And before rabbinical school, I regurgitated yards, touchdowns, and final scores far easier than wisdom and teachings from our tradition.

As I thought about why I love being an NFL fan, it dawned on me that those very things were the same reasons I loved Judaism. The ability to travel and meet Jews from across the country and the world and speak the same Jewish language, say the same prayers, and instantly connect over our shared heritage. I love the community inherent in Judaism, and knowing when life gets hard, they'll have my back. I love the use of "we" instead of "I," expressing through language a commitment to the bigger picture and the community.  I love that our faith unites us around a common purpose to make the world a better place, elevate our existence and celebrate life's highs and lows together. I guess, as my friend Sam Roberts says, "I LOVE BEING JEWISH!"   

Tonight marks the first of the seven Shabbatot of consolation. After the three weeks of mourning that led us to Tisha B'Av on Tuesday, we are now comforted by Isaiah's prophetic visions of a future promised land, a time when our actions warrant God's greatest gifts. So as we start to prepare for our holiest days of the year, days of great introspection and contemplation, our tradition teaches us something profound.

This week we read that "God made a covenant with us, not with our ancestors, but with us, the living, every one of us who is here today." One medieval rabbi teaches that "Every generation must think that the Torah was given directly to them" (Gersonides). This idea presents us with the opportunity to step out of the box and take inventory of our own practice. What does it mean for us to be receiving the Torah today? How can the stories and narratives contained therein enrich our lives, provide purpose and serve as a moral compass? And which rituals merit updating?

This parsha also challenges us with the Ten Commandments.  The Torah forbids us from idolatry, yet we often idolize our sports teams or money or status. We are commanded to observe the Sabbath, but in practice, only do that when it suits us. We often treat the Torah as outdated legalism, but in fact, the Torah is a guidebook. If we follow it, it might lead us to something we could never find on our own. Which leads me to wonder, what are the effects of forgoing the guidebook when there are no obvious consequences? Has my fandom crossed a line into idolatry that's unhealthy? Would I benefit from being a little more observant about Shabbat with my family or other easily ignored traditions? This isn’t a zero-sum game, and the answers to these questions are profoundly personal. 

So as America's most powerful civic religion kicks off, our Torah invites us to begin preparing for our holiest days by assessing ourselves, evaluating our practice and considering what it means to receive Torah in 2017. For me, one thing is certain as our little family grows: Shabbat will be at the top of my priority list for 5778, but I will also be putting Aria in as much swag and watching as many Eagles games as I possibly can.

Shabbat Shalom!

Delivered at Temple Sinai of Roslyn on 8/4/2017