The most intense day of the year.
The culmination of weeks of preparation.
A deeply personal struggle.
Supported and lifted by those around you.
Rising up beyond the limits of physicality.
Deeply emotional singing, becoming joyous at the end.
A long blast to mark the end of the day.
Feelings of elation that are almost indescribable.
Unity and goodwill between people who may not even be friends, yet share an unshakeable bond.

Am I talking about Yom Kippur, or the AFL Grand Final?

The similarities are striking, especially when they happen to fall on the same day, as they did this year.

In Australia,a secular democracy where the church becomes less popular by the year, one religion remains stronger than ever: football. People follow their team with fervour, chant together, attend matches religiously, and worship their favourite players. If they were doing all that in a synagogue, church or mosque, they’d be called a religious nut. But it’s fine if you are a footy supporter. Football vs religion? No, football is religion, just without the G-word.

What can we learn from this?

It seems self-evident that people need some of the elements of religion – being part of a collective, admiration and even worship of someone/something greater than themselves, and structured activities reinforce that. Is professional sport just the latest incarnation of avodah zarah – idol worship?

IN: Dustin Martin
OUT: God (obsolete)

Bu there is one ingredient in professional sport that is notably absent from religion: competition.

When the shofar blows to signal the end of Yom Kippur, there is no-one sitting in the corner crying because they didn’t get the outcome they were seeking. We are all happy together – with each other and for each other.

Sport divides us into groups corresponding to the teams we follow, and we are pitted against one another. It’s very clear who I am, and who the other is. There is a winner, and therefore there must be a loser.

In religion, the opponent – our yetzer hora – is within each one of us, and sometimes is us. It is unseen, yet always there. It is never truly vanquished. We need the fast of Yom Kippur to appreciate the frailty of our physical bodies, and thus connect with the spiritual. The elation that we feel after completing Neilah and the fast is shared by everyone. It is not a zero sum game.

For me, this past Yom Kippur was especially challenging. Everything around me was football, as my resurgent team made to the grand final after many stumbles and a protracted club rebuild. At the start of this season (in March), my son looked at the calendar and noted that the grand final fell on Yom Kippur. “Of all the years, I bet this will be the one we finally make it”, he mused. And he was right.

People in shule wished my team well, and I know they meant it, but still – this was Yom Kippur! I lost count of the number of times I needed to fend off thoughts of football during the day. Instead, I put my tallit over my head (again), thought about God, and recalled some recent Torah studies. The five prayers on Yom Kippur were a progression through the five layers of the soul, each one connecting us more intimately to God, culminating in Neilah, where we tap in to the energy of the soul that expresses mesirat nefesh – complete self-sacrifice – and bittul – self-annulment – before God.

In the times of the Temple, Yom Kippur was the only time the Kohen Gadol would enter the Holy of Holies. At that special time, no-one else could be present – not even spiritual beings. This was the most intimate connection between one person (on behalf of all Jews) and God. Neilah is the modern-day version of that connection, and one we can all experience personally.

And so during the mincha service, as I was building toward that special time, the word gently filtered through to me: Richmond had won! I was at a loss. What is a greater disruption to prayer – knowing or not knowing? I walked out of shule for a few minutes to try and get some of the emotion out of me, then returned. Tallis even further over my head, I kept saying to God, “It’s just You and I, just You and I”, and the football thoughts were pushed aside, a few minutes at a time. As the ark opened for Neilah, I immersed myself spiritually, and “You and I” became “You and You”. The purest part of my soul is an actual piece of God, embedded through the most wonderful process in a physical body that is nothing more than a vessel.

At the end, we sang triumphantly, the shofar was blown, and we prayed a leisurely maariv service before going home.

And as we broke our 25-hour fast, we watched the replay as my precious Tigers broke their 37-year premiership drought.

Football is fantastic. Winning the grand final is beyond words. But that moment when we can connect with God on the deepest level is truly sublime. One day; two grand finals. Yom Kippur won. My soul won.