I know the father of a young man from Boca who “made it big.” His name is Blair Walsh and he is the kicker for the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings. Blair signed a contract extension this past summer because of the faith the team had in his abilities. And he had a great season. Last Sunday in the playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks, Blair kicked three field goals. As the game was coming to an end, the Vikings were down by one point with a few seconds to go. Blair had an opportunity to kick a field goal and lead the team to the next round. And it was what is referred to as a chip shot. Something went wrong and Blair “shanked” the kick and the Vikings lost 10-9. He was reported to have taken full responsibility for the miss. He was devastated. He cried and was really in a state of despair. Adding to his pain was the fact that he began to receive death notes from crazy football fans. The Vikings season was over, and it was Blair’s missed kick that was blamed.
Rabbis often joke that we are only as good as our last sermon. But obviously that is a joke and everyone knows there is so much more to each and every day of our work. But football kickers hold that as a reality. They are only judged by their last kick. So we can only imagine the depth of Blair Walsh’s pain.
Something happened this week. Not only did Blair take full responsibility for his kick, but teammates and management and officials of the NFL rose up to express support for him. And this is from the world where Vince Lombardi notably said: “Winning isn’t everything; it is the only thing!”
But something else happened to Blair that changed the way he faced his world. Blair was supposed to come home this weekend – now that his season is over – but he postponed his trip because he had to take time to visit an elementary school and give thanks to a group of fourth graders that wrote him letters. The letters spoke about making mistakes, about practicing, about hardship, and about their feelings for him. And he felt a connection that made him realize something deep in the human spirit. He saw caring hearts. He undoubtedly realized that even the greatest can make mistakes and have moments of failure. It changed his week. Sure, the missed kick will always be with him, but he placed some perspective on it; perspective in relation to life itself.
Normally I don’t write about sports stories, but this one touched me because I know his father and I was so saddened when I saw his kick. And also because there is a relation to this week’s Torah portion.
In the portion there is a description of the last seven plagues brought by God against the Egyptians. The second to last plague is the plague of darkness. We learn that although the darkness was so thick that it could be felt, and that no one could see anything or do anything at all for three days, the Israelites had light. How is that possible? The rabbis taught the following: There are many kinds of darkness, but none is more profound than the darkness which arises from the inability to see your brother or sister. We need to be able to see the pain and the struggle of another. Light is not only a physical phenomenon; it is a metaphor for more. In our tradition it symbolizes knowledge and understanding. And here, in this Torah text, it is about empathy. The rabbis taught that the light the Israelites had was because they felt each other’s pain and the pain of others. And when there is empathy and concern expressed, darkness can turn to light.
When we say the Havdalah prayer at the end of Shabbat we quote the words of Megillat Esther and we say: “To the Jewish people there was light, happiness and joy…” May we, and all people, know the light that comes from human compassion and caring, just as those little children in Minnesota showed Blair Walsh.
See you in shul.
Rabbi David Steinhardt