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Soccer or Basketball?

October 26, 2016

Chag sameach.  We are in the midst of somewhat of a revolution. It is nothing as radical or historical as some of the other great revolutions in history, but it is still of some significance.  I am referring to soccer becoming one of the most popular sports in America.

I was recently made aware of a very interesting book which offers a fascinating way of looking at the world.  I have not read it yet, but it is at the top of my list.  The book is called The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer is Wrong, written by Chris Anderson – a former professional goalkeeper and now an Ivy League Economics professor) and David Sally a behavioral economist at Dartmouth.

One of the key theories in the book is that soccer is a weak-link game.  What this means is that a team’s success or failure will be determined by its weakest player.

What matters more if you want to build a really great soccer team – how good your best player is or how good your worst player is?  In soccer, what matters most is how good your worst player is.

David Sally, one of the authors explains: “Soccer is a game where if you get a single goal, if you just happen to get lucky, that goal might hold up.  And so mistakes turn out to be a very important part of soccer as a team sport.  That leads you to think about, ‘Well mistakes more often happen or are more often produced by weaker players on the pitch.”

Sally and Anderson did a statistical analysis.  They looked at the top soccer clubs in Europe and showed that if those teams upgraded their poorest players instead of their best players, they would score more goals and win more games.  A lot more.

“having a better superstar was of course better.  But having a better end of the bench or 11th guy on the pitch was actually more influential to whether you won matches or not.”

This is the exact opposite of basketball.  What matters in basketball is not how good your fifth player is, it’s how good your superstar is.  It’s a strong link game.  Think about basketball and whoever your favorite player is/was:  Michael Jordan, Lebron James, Larry Bird, Jerry West.  Any one of them could take over a game at will.  They didn’t even have to pass it to their teammates if they didn’t want.

As we prepare to say yizkor, and stand on the cusp of Simchat Torah, I find this discussion of weak link and strong link scenarios to be quite relevant.  

Rav Yitzchak Hutner, whose explanation of Yosef being freed from jail and learning a new language, we explored on Shabbos Shuva brings an interesting story in his volume of Pachad Yitzchak on Sukkot.  Pachad Yitzchak, Sukkos no. 57-Tells the story of the Chiddushei HaRim who watched two students dancing on Simchas Torah and predicted one student to tire before the other. He explained that one was dancing for the Torah he had learned up to this point.  The second was dancing for the Torah he would learn in the future. There is a limit to the past but there is no limit to what there is in the future.

With this in mind, we very much are the link in the chain bridging the Torah, the commitment to Judaism of the past with that of the future.  And this is felt most strongly during yizkor.  When we recall the memory of our loved ones who are no longer with us and accept the responsibility of passing on their values to our children and grandchildren.

The question to ponder is whether Judaism is a weak link phenomenon or a strong link phenomenon.  Is Judaism best preserved and passed on to the next generation through emphasizing the “superstars”/elite or is it best preserved by emphasizing the weakest link – by ensuring that EVERYONE has a part in Torah.  Should we treat Judaism and our Jewish heritage more like soccer or more like basketball?

Simchat Torah, more than any other holiday offers a resounding answer to this question.  We are absolutely a weak-link religion.  On Simchat Torah everyone gets to hold the Torah and dance with the Torah.  Everyone is called to the Torah for an Aliyah.

One of the central pesukim from the reading of Simchat Torah is

Deuteronomy 33:4 דברים פרק לג

 (ד) תּוֹרָה צִוָּה לָנוּ מֹשֶׁה מוֹרָשָׁה קְהִלַּת יַעֲקֹב:

When Moses charged us with the Torah/ As the heritage of the congregation of Jacob

The Talmud and Midrashic tradition offer two explanations of what it means that Torah is a מורשה (heritage).

On the one hand we find in Shemot Rabbah 33:7 and in Yalkut Shimoni

אל תקרי מורשה אלא ירושה

As an inheritance, we passively receive Torah.  We need not do anything to stake our claim in it.  We have no choice in the manner.

But the Gemara in Brachot 57a, Pesachim 49b has a different read:

אל תקרי מורשה אלא מאורסה

As a betrothal, following the metaphor of a marriage, we must work to strengthen and solidify our relationship to Torah and yidishkeit.

The Sefat Emet maintains that both readings are true.  Torah is an inheritance to us and it is also a betrothal.  We must honor both if it is truly to become our מורשה.

One of the ways to deal with a weak-link issue is to use the Kohler effect.  Kohler conducted experiments on members of a rowing club.

First, he tested how long each standing rower could, while holding and curling a bar connected to a weight of about 90 pounds, keep the weight from touching the floor.
Then he doubled the weight, paired the rowers and tested how long they could curl the heavier bar together. This is a weak-link task because the weight was too great for any single person to hold up: the 180 pounds would hit the floor when the weaker partner’s biceps gave out. Köhler found that weaker rowers would endure significantly longer when they were paired than when they were solo. In doing so, he had isolated one of the key characteristics of psychology: the gain in enthusiasm and effort and perseverance that comes from being on a team.

The Köhler effect occurs because weak links work harder to keep up, whether in an attempt to match their more talented colleagues or because they think their role is just as essential. These two factors are equally important in helping improve a weak link.

I have spent a lot of time talking about the voice initiative.  I sent a letter over the shul listserv right before Shabbos.  I will not go into all the details now, other than to say that I can think of no better way to show our commitment to creating opportunities for everyone to contribute and to strengthen each person’s knowledge, commitment and ability to contribute.

Chag Sameach.














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