Torah and the NFL- Nitzavim and Domestic Violence

This week’s Parasha opens with an extraordinary statement: “Atem nitzavim hayom culchem lifnay Adonai.” (Deut. 29:9) You are all standing here this day before the Eternal your God; the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel, your young children, your women, and your convert who is within your camp both your woodcutters and your water drawers that you may enter the covenant, the Brit, of the Eternal your God and His oath which the Eternal your God is making with you this day. (Deut. 29:9-11)

Everyone from the highest of stature to the lowliest is included. We each and every one of us are to be included. The statement is actually twofold. It has an element that sometimes we overlook. Usually we focus on how each is obligated to enter into the covenant. But there is a form of reciprocity implied in the Brit. As each of us is obligated to enter into it, then by extension so too is each of us protected by it. No matter what your stature from the lowliest to the highest, we are all sheltered by the very same covenant of laws. No one is above the law and all are subject to the same law.

A nation of laws has been birthed for the first time in human history. This is one of the singularly great gifts of Judaism to humankind. It is the bedrock upon which we have built the United States of America.

And that is precisely why it is so deeply offensive and disturbing to witness the ongoing saga of domestic violence play out within the National Football League and within our culture. The Allstate Foundation and its affiliate, The Purple Purse, a center to combat domestic violence, published that an astounding 1 woman in 4 in this country will report experiencing domestic violence in their lifetimes. 1 in 4. Here in the United States of America. Furthermore, the number of victims that find they are unable to remove themselves from the cycle of violence is equally staggering. And sadly many victims come to believe that the cycle of violence is acceptable or even the norm and then tragically perpetuate the behavior.

 The stories of Ray Rice, the now former running back for the Baltimore Ravens, and Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings continues. Around the country many people are proclaiming that domestic violence simply is not acceptable. The simple truth is: A brute cannot assault a woman; child discipline cannot devolve into battery leaving physical injury. We do not permit domestic violence. Period— End of Story.

 But it is so much easier to turn a blind eye. After all, we are talking about Football. Football is more than a game; Football is our national quasi-religion. Its sacrament is offered by the grand church known as the National Football League in cathedrals around the country and live-cast into our homes.  Almost everyone loves to watch the game on Sunday, and on Monday and on Tuesday and on Wednesday and on Thursday. (If only we could get people to our services so often!). It is quite a spectacle and these players are great athletes.

 Some people ask, can’t we just kick back and enjoy the show? I mean cold cocking your fiancé is not the most admirable thing to do, but come on- have you watched this guy run? Many would rather watch the game rather and turn a blind eye to what happens off the field.

But the answer remains no. When we choose to turn a blind eye, we choose to condone domestic violence. We facilitate and even encourage this behavior because there are no consequences if we turn away. We cannot turn away. We are all responsible for one another.

 As public figures these athletes have a responsibility. And as people who make their money from our participation, we have a responsibility. These competitors embody the celebrity and the financial success that our country glorifies as well as their athleticism, the result of fierce training and discipline. We admire these qualities and aspire to be like those who possess them.

 These people are role models for our kids and for us as well. This is substantiated by the fact that the star performers all have major endorsement contracts to promote everything under the sun- from shoes to hats, to anti-fungal foot powder and almost anything else imaginable. It is only because of their influence on us that they hawk products. So whether or not they aspire to be, they are our role models and the endorsement deals create income streams and a lavish lifestyle.

 What I find distressing however is that the sponsors are reacting faster than the general public. Endorsement contracts are being reviewed and many pulled in response to the culture of unbridled violence that permeates Football. But the fan base, the American “amcha” if you will, remains by in large wildly devoted participants in the spectacle.

 What does it say about us when we encourage or condone or even tolerate this kind of behavior? What are the values that truly matter to us? How do we act as individuals, even when no one else is supposed to be looking? And what do we do in greater society as a whole? If we shirk our responsibilities, we create a culture that accepts and promotes Domestic Violence.

 Our Parasha this week admonishes us that we are united in our obligations. “You stand here today, all of you, before the Eternal your God,” And if we do not adhere to these principles, there will be exile and devastation in the land. Further, it is incumbent upon each of us. Each and every individual is responsible. And this is not an impossible task. “For the mitzvah I command you this day it is not beyond you, nor is it remote from you. “Lo Bashamayim Hi.” It is not in Heaven, it is not across the sea. Rather it is very close to you, in your mouth, in your heart that you may do it.” (Deut. 30:14)

 All of us are called upon to be involved and to require good and decent behavior from ourselves and from others. So much of Torah is given to us for precisely this purpose. This is not some matter of politically correct civility; it is a foundation upon which our society is built.  A free and democratic system cannot tolerate the brute to rule. To borrow from Socrates rebuke of Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic, Justice is not the will of the stronger. The prophetic call to action of Isaiah, which we will read during the High Holidays and which we echo at every prayer service, admonishes us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless and provide for the widow and orphan. Society is strong only when it protects those unable to protect themselves. The seeds of this understanding are to be found here in Parasha Nitzavim.

 We are extraordinary and unique in that we are a nation of laws. This is not only a fundamental value of Judaism, but also a cornerstone of Western Culture and these United States. Without it, the very fabric of our society begins to fray and the domestic peace is threatened. It is both our inheritance and our legacy.

For this covenant extends beyond us to all of “those who are not here with us this day,” (Deut. v14) the future generations, our children and our children’s children.

 We are compelled therefore to demand better. The Eternal explains in Torah “I have set before you life and goodness, and death and evil. I command you to love God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments.” God admonishes us to live with our eyes wide open.

 For if we do not live respecting the laws of decency and civility a cancer growing inside, threatens our society, one that will eventually kill, or to use the language of Nitzavim, “a root that produces hemlock and wormwood.” (Deut. 19:17)  We can put a stop to it now, by not tolerating such abusive behavior.

 We can act and we can have an effect. Truly it is close to us in our hearts and mouths. Nitzavim cautions that if someone thinks that he or she “can have peace even if I follow my heart’s desires,” “The Eternal will not forgive…but rather God’s zeal will fume against that person.” (Deut. 19:18) And so, each of us is obliged and challenged to act.

 It can start with something as simple as not watching the football game, sending an email to a sponsor or to the NFL demanding a change before agreeing to patronize one of the worlds most successful business enterprises, and actively supporting campaigns against domestic violence such as Purple Purse.

 The month of Elul is a time of reflection in preparation for the High Holidays; we look to where we have fallen short and how we might do better in the year to come. This is one place where we can all do better.

 ”Life and Death I have set before you, blessing and curse.” (Deut. 30:15) “Choose Life and live.”(Deut. 30:19)

Shabbat Shalom