Rabbi Avi Shafran
As someone who is so utterly disinterested in organized sports that until recently he would have imagined ESPN to be a verb for engaging in paranormal activity, I have to offer a high-five (do I have that right?) to the sports network for helping spread awareness of the Jewish Sabbath.
Actually, the real credit goes to Micah Golshirazian, a 12-year old Orthodox Jewish boy who plays Little League baseball with the Worcester, Massachusetts "Jesse Burkett All-Stars." Micah's position is shortstop but, as his team's manager Fran Granger said, "he can run like the wind" - and so his important role in the recent Little League World Series was as a pinch-runner.
The Worcester team did quite well in the series, and one important game, which pitted it against a team from Webb City, Missouri, took place on a Saturday night. At 8:00. Almost an hour before the end of Shabbat.
Micah wanted to play, but above all to honor the dictates of his faith, which does not consider sports to be in the spirit (and elements of them, conceivably, within the letter) of the Sabbath laws. His coach, Tom Daley, told a local newspaper that "In the history of our league, kids in Micah's situation were really never considered [for an All-Star team] because they couldn't make the seven-day-a-week commitment. But Micah has meant so much to the entire program, and in many ways he personifies what the Jesse Burkett Little League is all about." Leaving aside ugly rumors about Micah's flouting of one of the Ten Commandments (something about stealing bases), the boy certainly shone a bright beacon on another: the one about the day of rest.
Another observant Jewish youth somewhat older than Micah who likewise has refused to sacrifice principle to play is Tamir Goodman, a Baltimore basketball wonder who recently signed on as a player with Israel's top team, Maccabi Tel Aviv. Tamir's contract with the team, which plays an 82-game schedule and competes in three different leagues, contains a clause exempting him from having to participate in any team activities that will interfere with his observance of Shabbat or any Jewish holiday.
In contemporary Jewish America, unfortunately, it is all too common for Jews to ignore the Jewish Sabbath altogether, to regard it as a generic day of recreation or to seek to tailor its laws to suit their personal or communal "needs."
But Judaism is not about reformulating the Torah's laws to our own specifications. It is not about - to paraphrase JFK - asking what G-d can do for us but rather what we can do for G-d. Or, to take a more exalted statement of the same idea, it is embodied in what our ancestors at Sinai, according to Jewish tradition, responded when G-d offered them His Torah. "Na'aseh v'nishma", they said. "We will do and we will hear." In other words, we will follow Your law, even if we haven't yet managed to "hear," or understand, it.
And for three thousand years, Shabbat has entailed a clearly delineated, intricate set of dos and don'ts that have not only always been the signature observance of a religious Jew but which remain part and parcel of the lives of hundreds of thousands of Jews to this day - including doctors, lawyers, scientists, software designers, vice-presidential candidates - and athletes. They meticulously avoid a host of acts - from carrying items in an unenclosed space to driving cars to turning on lights - and sanctify the day by lighting Sabbath candles well before its onset, making "Kiddush" and eating festive meals that are accompanied by song and words of Torah. They recognize the importance of a weekly day-long reminder that the world has a Creator, and the power of dedicating that day to matters of the spirit.
Micah and Tamir, by their behavior in the public eye, have helped spread the word about Shabbat.
As has, yes, ESPN, which did something truly remarkable. On its broadcast of the Saturday night Little League game, it displayed a clock in the corner of the screen that counted down the minutes until the end of the Sabbath, when the stars (those in the sky, that is) had appeared and Micah, after reciting a declaration of havdalah ("separation" between the Sabbath and the rest of the week) could play ball.
As a result of the network's decision, countless viewers, many Jewish ones surely among them, were reminded (or informed) that there is something called the Jewish Sabbath, and that it is taken very seriously by those who observe it. What a valuable message that was, and is.
And, even more important, what a valuable invitation.
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.