By Rabbi Eric Yanoff
Parshat Acharei Mot
For the six years that I was a rabbi in Detroit, I found myself in a precarious position — mostly because I retained my support of Philadelphia sports teams. This was particularly challenging the day after my first Yom Kippur there, when my father and I sat among a sea of light blue and silver jerseys on Lions fans — as the Eagles tore through Detroit on their way to Super Bowl XXXIX.
I remember learning quickly to master the skill of the “inner celebration” (small fist-pump, yessss…) — after those frustrated Lions fans turned around when my dad and I jumped up in the end zone crowd on the Eagles’ first touchdown. We were in enemy territory … and coming off of Yom Kippur, that whole “who will live, who will die, Book of Life” thing had some very real possibilities.
That’s the beauty of sports — a game sets up a fantasy world, governed and bounded by rules. So that struggle for one’s team can be safe, competition does not become war and we call fouls instead of mourning casualties. Indeed, the best games flirt with a pretty close simulation of adversity — but always, we speak of rivals, not enemies. Sports are bounded by playing location, duration and, most importantly, by rules, a structure that ensures that, after the game, win or lose, everyone walks off the field or court — able to reenter “real life” from the fantasy game that we have constructed.
But occasionally, those boundaries are crossed from fun and fantasy to fighting and injury, with no rules. We forget that we’re dealing with human beings.
I know this personally: For a time in college, I was one of the students who went to sporting events and other appearances as the mascot, a tiger. (I was there in 1996 when Princeton upset defending-champion UCLA in the NCAA basketball tournament — another story for another time…)
But my first year of mascotting, the public safety patrol began to assign a guard to the mascot because another mascot student was sent to the hospital after being attacked and beaten by the Cornell Marching Band. In reflecting on that moment, I asked myself: How does something like that happen? For a moment, I believe, the Cornell band forgot that, inside that mascot uniform, inside that symbol of a rival — was a human being.
The tiger mascot costume became a sacred symbol — to uphold, or to strike down. The fantasy of the game and the rivalry took over and crossed out-of-bounds, into a frighteningly powerful reality. When we cross those boundaries, when we break those rules, we no longer have the safe fantasy that we call a game. “Game” becomes “battle,” “sport” becomes “war.” Rules are replaced by violence and chaos, riots in which anything — fists, chairs, food — anything is a weapon.
And I’m sad to observe that, increasingly, we see signs of the breaking of these boundaries between safe fantasy game and violent, real riot — both on and off the playing field. Parents fight at soccer matches and Little League games, confronting referees and umpires, kids, coaches and other parents. The failure of the safety nets that keep a game a game has spread into other media as well. Graphic, violent video games are traced as inspiration for school violence and lethal crimes.
As tragic as these examples are, it speaks to the power and influence of such a sacred symbol. Nowadays, the ritual in Parshat Acharei Mot of placing our sins on a goat and sending that goat outside the community may seem quaint or superstitious — but that symbolism is no more random than placing our school spirit on the back of a tiger mascot, or placing our hopes for our child’s future major league career on the back of a volunteer umpire. Once we immerse in a system of symbol and ritual, we accept its basic premises — and this can have deeply comforting or deeply troublesome results.
Such religious symbolism can be transformative for good or evil. Just two weeks ago, we experienced ritual and symbol as redemptive: “In every generation, a person is commanded to view himself as if we, ourselves, left Egypt in the Exodus.” We don’t just tell the story — we reenact it — the foods, the ritual items — all sacred symbols to personalize it, to include ourselves as not just spectators, not just tellers of the story, but as participants in the story.
And yet, as Jews, we know what happens when the symbol of the scapegoat becomes a vehicle for venting another’s personal or national frustrations; we have been that goat, and the recent rise in anti-Semitism indicates that the power of such symbols to harm is not a dated, ancient ritual.
Parshat Acharei Mot reminds us not to overlook or minimize the power of sacred symbols. The scapegoat, the seder, one’s favorite team mascot — all can be redemptive, or can lead us astray on the rocky path, far away from such goodness. May we use our sacred symbols to model a more perfect world — for us, and for generations to come.
Rabbi Eric Yanoff is a rabbi at Adath Israel in Merion Station. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.