It was a dream game from a spectator’s perspective. Super Bowl XLIII, between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Arizona Cardinals, was close, so close that fans were sitting on the edge of their seats until the very last minute.
Both teams came to Tampa awash in hope. The Steelers dreamed of a sixth Super Bowl victory to add to their impressive record. The Cardinals prayed that this would be their chance to garner their very first Super Bowl victory.
The beginning of the game looked like a shoo in for the Steelers. By the second quarter the score was 10-0. Then the Cardinals scored, but not enough – by the end of the second half, the score was 17-7 for the Steelers. The Steelers scored in the third quarter and then things started to heat up. With less than eight minutes left the Cardinals scored sixteen straight points in the fourth. With less than three minutes left, the Cardinals took their first lead in the game – 23-20.
Over 95 million viewers watched with bated breath as the drama continued to unfold. Thirty-five seconds before the end of the game, Santonio Holmes of the Steelers just managed to get his feet down in the end zone to catch the winning 6-yard touchdown pass. He tipped the score 27-23. And the Steelers won!
It’s only after the last shred of confetti is carried way on the wind and the last barbecue wing consumed that we can gain enough objectivity to analyze not the game, but the experience of the fans. Why do we get so swept away in football fever? Why do games have us trembling with anticipation, gnawing our nails in anxiety, leaping from our chairs in ecstasy? Why do sports touch a place so very deep?
Rav Nosson Meir Wachtfogel zt”l, the former mashgiach of Lakewood, offers a penetrating insight on the topic. There is an inborn tendency within every person to compete. We are wired to desire the sweet taste of defeating an enemy. The battlegrounds upon which these fights are meant to take place are within, we were created to fight our evil inclination and emerge a better person.
However, if we don’t engage in the true battle, we will be drawn to other, external battles. If we don’t utilize our drive to compete in a battle against our baser self, it will fixate outside of ourselves in a world of touchdowns and field goals. We find ourselves drawn to ballplayers and athletes, men who compete with all they’ve got, and strain every sinew in their struggle for victory. We gape at those who fight their physical limitations and attain unimaginable physical feats. And the stormier the battle, the more formidable the experience, the more we enjoy the game. Sports can give us enormous pleasure because the battles played out upon the field stirs something buried within us.
If we’d only unleash that urge against our inner enemy, we’d find ourselves scaling great heights. Spiritual battles come with few of the trappings of physical battles – there are no cheerleaders or bands, no adoring fans or television cameras, no halftime entertainment. But the end result of becoming more, becoming greater, can have a profound impact upon the world.
Sometime the battles are small. Shelling out your hard earned money to the beggar you look at with distaste. Leaving the bigger brownie for your spouse. Bringing sunshine into a coworker’s life even when your sky is filled with thunderclouds.
Sometimes the battles are larger. Being insulted, having the perfect retort upon your tongue – and yet not saying it. Accepting life’s curveballs with grace and equanimity. Letting your ailing mother-in-law move in to your home.
And sometimes those battles are enormous, Super Bowl size.
It was 1967 and Jerusalem was being bombed. The students of Mir yeshivah huddled in the dining room which had been converted to a makeshift bomb shelter. Neighbors who had no shelter crowded in, hoping to save their families from the fiery destruction raining upon the city. The shelling was particularly intense. Everybody raised their voice in prayer, beseeching G-d to spare them.
When the bombing finally ended, and those cooped up in the shelter emerged, they were shocked to find three live bombs sitting on the roof of the yeshiva. They reported this to the rosh yeshivah, Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz, and he shared the following:
“Do you think we were saved in the merit of the yeshiva bachurim?” he asked. “We weren’t. I’ll tell you who saved us. One of our neighbors is an agunah. Her husband abandoned her and their five children. She and her family took shelter in the yeshivah and were sitting near me. When the shelling intensified, I heard her offer up the following prayer.
“‘Master of the Universe, you know how much pain my husband has caused me. You know how he left me alone, unable to remarry, forced to clean the houses of others just in order to feed our children. I’m sure in Heaven there are strong claims against him. But let’s make a deal. I’ll forgive him, forgive all the heartache he caused, and You forgive our sins and let us all emerge healthy and whole.’ That woman saved the yeshiva.”
Spiritual victories can happen anytime and anyplace. And when they occur, the world shakes.
Bassi Gruen is a licensed social worker, a professional writer, and the Editorial Director of Targum Press. She’s published hundreds of articles in numerous Jewish publications and is the author of A Mother’s Musings, a collection of articles taking an honest look at the challenges and joys of motherhood. She lives with her husband, her children, and her dreams in Beitar Illit.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.