The name of last week’s Torah section Nitzavim-Vayelech – traditionally read on the Shabbat prior to Rosh Hashana, seems to contain a mixed message: “nitzvavim” means “standing”, but “vayelech” means “going” (literally “and he went”). While the metaphor of standing before God as we approach the High Holydays is meaningful, it doesn’t quite mesh with the message of “vayelech”. Which should we be doing? Should I stay or should I go?
The way we can understand nitzavim is not that we are standing still (as opposed to moving forward), rather that we are standing together. More than Judaism is about the individual, it’s about the collective – the family and the community. As we approach a new year, the theme to bear in mind is one of unity – achdut. Whether we are moving forward or backward (and let’s hope it’s forward), we do so together.
This time of year coincides with the start of the American Football (NFL) season, and the Australian Football League (AFL) Finals (indeed, this year the Grand Final falls on Yom Kippur). In addition, the AFL team I support is enjoying a resurgence after some 30 years in the wilderness, so both codes of football are on my mind. Rather than letting sport be a distraction, perhaps we can gain some Rosh Hashana insights from the world of professional team sports?
One thing my AFL team has done especially well this year is play “as a team”. John McGrath famously said that a champion team will always beat a team of champions. But what makes a champion team?
The opening verses of Nitzavim enumerate all of the different Jews in society: the leaders, elders, to the water-carrier and wood-chopper. A champion team needs everyone to know and do their job. If the water-carrier tries to be a judge, or if the leader tries their hand at chopping wood, they will likely fail. It’s the same in any team sport – players have positions, and assignments within the context of the game.
Nitzavim precedes the enumeration with one important word: “kulchem” – “all of you”. From this we learn that a team is greater than the sum of its parts.
So far, I’ve not told you much that you don’t already know. Roles and unity are the core elements of any team. What is the ‘special sauce’ that makes a team truly excel?
In American Football, the quarterback’s job is to throw the ball to a receiver, and the receiver’s job is to get open. The quarterback drops back, scans the field, and throws to an open receiver. But occasionally, something special happens: he throws a deep ball downfield while the receiver is still running. When they connect, it is truly magic, because he has not thrown to a receiver, rather he has thrown to where the receiver will be. My AFL team has been doing something similar very well this year – a player will kick the ball forward into space rather than to a target, and his teammates will be running forward either to catch the ball or commit to a contest.
The special sauce that makes a champion team is trust. It means that you don’t just do your job, but you have the trust that other teammates will also do theirs. When you have that trust, you are much more confident that your role will be effective. That trust leads to a virtuous cycle that improves the performance of everyone on the team.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 97a) explains that in the lead up to the times of Mashiach, the face of the generation will be like dogs. One explanation of this statement is that leaders will act like dogs – running forward but then stopping to look back and check if others have followed them.
If one member – particular a leader – of a team is moving forward, and has to stop and check if the rest of the team are with him, then the team is not operating with unity of purpose, and certainly not with trust.
This is the message of Nitzavim-Vayelech, as we head towards Rosh Hashana. In order to move forward successfully as a collective, we need both unity and trust. With those two ingredients, we can operate as a champion team.
Wishing everyone a Shana Tova – a year of good health, success, and happiness.
This is adapted from an address prior to the auction for Rosh Hashana honours in my local shule.