As a lifelong New England Patriots fan, this has been a painful week. I won’t go into all the details of the so called “Deflate-gate,” some of which are widely known and many of which are as yet unknown. Essentially, the New England Patriots, owned by Robert Kraft, stand accused of intentionally deflating footballs to gain a competitive advantage during last week’s AFC Championship Game. The NFL is investigating and the stakes are high, with the Patriots set to play the Seattle Seahawks in next week’s Superbowl.
As of Friday morning, when this was first written, the public had not yet heard from the NFL or Robert Kraft. Both made statements on Friday afternoon, the league indicating that its investigation is thorough and ongoing, and Kraft responding that the team is cooperating completely.
Kraft’s statement was especially important to me, as it restated what I’ve always known to be true about him, his family and the Patriots. He stated:
Competitive balance and the integrity of the game are the foundation of what makes our league so special and I have the utmost respect for those principles.
He does. Kraft is a Jewish community leader and life-long supporter of Israel (and the founder of the Israeli Football League). But behind Robert’s voice is that of his late father Harry, who was the guiding light of Robert’s life and a tremendous role model for me as well. He was a true “mensch,” a man of the utmost integrity and the highest moral stature. And humility.
All the kids at my hometown synagogue of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, Mass., looked up to him. My father, whom Harry helped to hire as cantor, loved and respected him — not always the case between clergy and shul lay leaders. Harry Kraft used to work with Bar Mitzvah students and he wrote my Bar Mitzvah speech with me… actually for me – in those days, that’s what they did. When he led children’s services on festivals, hundreds of kids stood in awe of him, waiting for him to call them to the pulpit to lead prayers. His smile meant everything to us.
So I know one thing, that when Bob Kraft weighs in on this with his own verdict, Harry will be looking over his shoulder. If anyone is responsible for compromising the integrity of the game and the reputation of his team – his family – he won’t let that slide. But he also knows his quarterback and coach better than just about anyone. If he defends them, that will mean a lot too. In the past, he’s also been the first to call out his coach for prior sins. In the meantime, my inclination is always “innocent until proven guilty,” but we’ll see how it plays out.
Past Patriots misdeeds cannot be wiped away. But the public branding of the team as evil and always cheating is unfair, and whenever Kraft’s name is brought into the mix, I wonder whether latent anti-Semitism might be at play as well. As an organization, the Patriots do so much good. The Patriot Way, as it is called, still stands for excellence and fair play.
This week’s portion of Bo includes the Torah’s most detailed description of the night of Passover, introducing us to that most deflated of foods, matza. There is much to say about matza’s symbolism, including the ubiquity of the crumbs, but the most important aspect of matza is that it is not allowed to inflate – to ferment – beyond a certain amount. The stipulations for making matza are even more precise and strict than those for inflating a football.
So why that precision and strictness? The Chatam Sofer explains that hametz (leaven) is symbolic of the inflation of the ego, and also a metaphor for negativity. Perhaps this whole “Deflate-gate” controversy also revolves around inflated egos and cynicism, whether on the part of the Patriots, their legion of haters, the league, the media – whose feeding frenzy on this reminds me of some old family seders when the matza balls come out (and I must say, I prefer my matza balls inflated and fluffy rather than dense and pebbly). All around, this is a story about ego.
One modern commentator delineates hametz from Matza by explaining that hametz is nothing but puffed up matza. They are made out of the same material. So the problem is not ego itself, which can be a good thing, but the perversion of ego, it’s over inflation. He adds:
By seeing that the ego is often nothing but a corruption of a noble desire we can easily move past it and bring even the ego to serve God.
Some interesting lessons about the need to deflate our egos and to be “Matza Mensches” in all we do.
Which brings me right back to Harry Kraft, and his son Robert.