When I served as a congregational rabbi, a prominent member of the synagogue died in his early forties, leaving a wife and child. Unfortunately, both wife and son were emotionally adrift for years and never recovered from the tragedy of losing a beloved husband and parent in the prime of his life.
Even though the son had his mother, the loss of his father made him an orphan, vulnerable to all. 12 Mighty Orphans is the true story of a football team raised in a Fort Worth orphanage that went on to play for the Texas state championship in spite of their dismal personal circumstances. Over the course of their miracle winning seasons, they became a symbol of resilience inspiring their state and nation during the Great Depression of the late 1930s.
The key reason for their success was Rusty Russell, a high school coach who left a prestigious high school position so that he could teach and coach at the orphanage. An unpublicized motivation was that Rusty was himself an orphan. Realizing his players were small and untutored in the game, he developed innovative strategies for his players, enabling them to beat imposing and more skilled adversaries.
From Rusty, the boys learn the value of teamwork, structure, and they learn life lessons that transcend the game of football. They learn to respect themselves and to respect each other. Happily, some of the players went on to careers in the NFL.
The Torah makes important statements about how we have to treat the orphan. Exodus 22:21 states: “You shall not cause pain to any widow or orphan.” Moreover, God says: “If you take advantage of them and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword. Your wives will become widows and your children orphans” (Exodus: 22-23). The Bible admonishes us to take special care of the orphan because he is vulnerable and has no protectors, no parents who are concerned about his welfare.
Eliav Friedman, a therapist and Jewish educator observes: “A parent is someone who is always thinking about you, always looking out for you, always keeping you in mind. Parents provide stability and security in an often chaotic world.” An orphan lacks this sense of security and is sensitive to his predicament as a social outsider.
Rabbi Binyamin Zimmerman cites Maimonides who gives us suggestions as to how we should relate to the orphan. Interestingly, Coach Russell’s sensitive and humane interactions with his student athletes reflect the sage’s approach: “A person is obligated to show great care for orphans and widows because their spirits are very low and their feelings are depressed. How should one deal with them? One should only speak to them gently and only treat them with honor. One should not cause pain to their persons with work or aggravate their feelings with harsh words. Anyone who vexes or angers them, hurts their feelings, oppresses them or causes them financial loss transgresses this prohibition. Surely, this applies if one beats them or curses them.”
12 Mighty Orphans reminds us to treat the vulnerable with sensitivity and love. When we do this, we create the possibility for positive change in the lives of the unprotected.