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The Big Game (Of Life)

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As Super Bowl weekend approaches the signs at the local takeout stores in Modern Orthodox neighborhoods (and even some haredi ones as well, but I limit my discussion here to the former as that is my community) abound with signs advertising gigantic food package options with catchy names such as the “Linebacker” or the “Halftimer.”

These food packages promise gastronomic delights of immense quantities of meat, wings, fries, sushi, etc., for ten, twenty, thirty or more people who will huddle together for the six- to seven-hour ritual of watching the pre-pre-game show, the pre-game analysis, the game itself, the halftime show and the post game recap.

Now, I like sports just as much as the next red-blooded American Yeshiva graduate, and I also hope the battered city of New Orleans finds catharsis and hope in the odyssey of its football team. But the excess of time, money and mental energy expanded by many in our religious communities on sports, popular entertainment, leisure activities and immersion in popular culture should give us all pause.

Many are currently agitated, often in overheated tones and rhetoric, by the hot-button issues that seem to be dominating the headlines in Modern Orthodox circles – issues such as the proper approach to gay Jews in our communities or women’s leadership roles. But the bottom line is that these issues, important as they may be, often divert our attention from the nitty-gritty challenge that we in the Modern Orthodox community need to keep in front-and-center view.

In a word, the challenge is ensuring that our personal, family, and communal lives are infused with the three pillars upon which the world stands: Torah , Avodah, and Gemilut Chasadim (Torah study, worship of God, and acts of loving- kindness).

These core values of religious life form the bedrock of any personal or communal vision and it is to them that we need to be devoted with passion, commitment and self-sacrifice, not simply for our kids but for ourselves and our own religious vibrancy.

Too often and in too many cases, we have let our passions be directed to many other areas of modern life that reflect the popular aspects of our culture rather than the most serious and noble parts of that culture which I as a serious Modern Orthodox Jew know and believe are enriching and edifying.

The best aspects of Western culture at its finest are ennobling and help develop one’s sensibilities as a committed Jew, a responsible and productive citizen and a good human being. This, however, has to be rooted in a passionate life the base of which includes serious time and effort devoted to Torah study (at whatever level and using whatever methodologies, whether traditional or a mix of the new and the old) and avodah – serious engagement with prayer whether privately, in tefillah b’tzibbur or in religious meditation.

These areas of mitzvot, which happen to focus on our relationship to God, need to be coupled with effort and money devoted to acts of chesed toward other Jews and toward non-Jews.

We all need to make sure our passion and allocation of time for the bedrock of our religious life and its key components are at least on par with the buffalo wings, sushi fests, or hoagies and their equivalents in terms of movies, music and other aspects of popular culture that often seem to dominate our lives.

This is the week for each of us to make a commitment to start learning more Torah (using the broadest senses of the term), going to a shiur or class, attending shul during the weekday prayers, doing more acts of chesed, learning with our children, setting aside time for religious introspection, engaging our spouses in real and meaningful conversation, putting aside some of the trashier aspects of our culture and recommitting ourselves to our own core values.

All of us can be winners in that game when we put in the time and effort.

About the Author: Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot is chair of the departments of Tanach and Jewish Thought at Yeshivat Chovevei Rabbinical School; is on the faculty of SAR High School; and is spiritual leader of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, New Jersey.

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