by Rabbi Jason Bonder
Camp Faculty & Assistant Rabbi, Congregation Beth Or
Last night, our monthly 8th and 9th grade Rosh Hodesh and Rosh Brodesh programs at Congregation Beth Or landed on the first night of Chanukah. First we ate Chinese food and donuts (of course.) Then we retold the miracles of Chanukah. We examined the debate of Hillel and Shammai regarding how to light a Chanukiyah. This is how we regularly learn about our holidays – through community, through text, through food. And hey, that’s a really great thing.
But our group of 8th and 9th grade boys this year, while conversant in text and donuts, is definitely fluent in another language – the language of sport. From the moment these guys enter the room, they are talking about the latest trades, who’s on hot streaks and who needs to be benched, and I don’t only mean in pro sports. I mean in the leagues and teams in which they participate as well. This group of guys lives, eats, and breathe sports.
In a Religious School setting, this love of sports can so often be seen as a barrier to learning. Absences from class, fatigue in class due to a long practice or game beforehand. The list goes on. But on this night, their fluency in sports illuminated (yes, that’s an overt Chanukah reference) a great opportunity for us to convey the miracles of Chanukah through the language of sport.
First, we set up a garbage pail in the middle of a large room and we played a game of H-O-R-S-E. For those who don’t know the game, it is a basketball game in which each player tries to make a basket can any location and in any way. You can shoot from in front of or behind the basket, your eyes can be open or closed, you can face forward or backward, or any other way you can think of. Everyone can design their own shot until someone makes a basket. At that point, every other person must mimic that exact shot and make it in. If the other players miss, they pick up a letter (H-O-R-S-E). If you miss enough times to pick up all five letters, you’re out.
After we played, and there was a clear winner (the same winner twice actually – attaboy, Andrew!) We paused and reflected. I asked the question, “So, when were you most comfortable shooting your shot? When you got to design your own shot, or when you had to follow someone else’s way?” The answer was clear – “When we designed our own shot” they agreed unanimously. “Not only did we get to create your own shot, but if we missed, there was no pressure of picking up a letter.” One student added.
“Well then,” I said, “Now you know what it was like for the Maccabees when Antiochus told all the Jews that they had to live by his rules instead of their own rules.” The Jews in the Chanukah story were asked to continually take the shots that other players made first. That’s not how the Maccabees wanted to live. They wanted to call their own shots and live a Jewish life.
Next we played classic basketball, but with one caveat. I divided up the teams. One player against the rest of us. We played quick games – first team to 3 points won. That way, many players had the experience of being the one against the many. During those games, I heard the students saying “This isn’t fair!” or “I’ll never be able to score a point.”
We then debriefed this experience. “Now you know what it was like for the few to fight against the many.” I said. “Imagine taking on all of these players and winning. Now you have an inkling of how tough it was for the Maccabees and how astonished they must have been when they won the war against the Greeks who outnumbered them by so many.”
The source of my greatest inspiration was the during both of these games, not one student ever gave up. The single player kept playing defense and kept trying until the very last point was scored. I reminded them at the end that, perhaps the greatest miracle of Chanukah is that the Maccabees looked at that tiny bit of oil which good enough for only one day and said, “Let’s try anyway.” Those Maccabees could have just as easily said, “Well, there’s only enough for one day. Let’s just wait until the next shipment of oil gets here.” Had the Maccabees not chosen to make the most of what they had, they would have never experienced the miracle of Chanukah at all. So too with all of our athletes. We all have a certain amount of natural ability. Some have more than others. But the key is to trust that we can take what we have and that it will be enough to do great things, whether that’s winning in a game of H-O-R-S-E or whether it’s playing at the highest levels of our sport. Whether it’s on the court or in the classroom, our students are willing to give it their best. That in itself is a miracle worth celebrating.
Chag Urim Sameach!