As a soccer fan, I love the every-four-years instance of the World Cup, where the best national teams from 32 countries come together to see who is the best. There’s fabulous sports on television every day. The best athletes in the world are competing. And the ugly military or diplomatic conflicts between countries over borders or resources that we read in the news day after day are replaced with a much more civil act of conflict — 11 men or women kicking a ball on a wide expanse of grass.
I especially love the sense of community the World Cup creates, especially within one country. When I root for the USA, it doesn’t matter what my politics are or what religion I practice or what city I’m from. It doesn’t even really matter if I am a big soccer fan or if I am tuning in to my first match
in four years. The World Cup forges a community around our collective national identity that, however brief, unites us and washes away our differences. We are united in soccer.
This week’s parsha contains one of the more poetic lines in all of Torah — a promise from God to Jacob that happens to be similar, but different, to promises God made to Abraham and Isaac. In Genesis 22, God tells Abraham that God will make his descendants “as numerous as the stars of the sky and the sands of the sea.” In Genesis 26 God tells Isaac, “I will make your heirs as numerous as the stars of heaven.” But here, God tells Jacob, “Your descendants shall be as the dirt of the earth.”
Rabbi Aharon Levin, the Reisha Rav (1879-1941), author of the Torah commentary “HaDrash Veha’iyun,” notes the distinction between these metaphors of the Jewish people — stars, sand, dirt: “We find that stars are separate, one to another, without connection to their fellow. Sand, the grains gather and pile next to each other, but they do not truly attach one to the next. Only dirt, when mixed with other dirt, binds and cleaves together to make one block.”
Creating sacred community is a blend of all of these things — recognizing the stars, the sand and the dirt. Sometimes individuals get the chance to shine and stand out, for the betterment of all. Sometimes we gather together as distinct individuals for a common cause, while remaining unique, like the grains of sand on a beach. And sometimes we nullify our distinct qualities for the betterment of the greater good of all — like slapping on a soccer jersey and screaming our heads off for our country, or showing up to minyan just to be the 10th person, so that someone can say kaddish. Judaism is all of these things, but in this week’s parsha, we get a bit of a reminder on the emphasis of being part of the collective, that we might improve the lives of our communities to the “west, the east, the north, and the south.” PJC
Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman is the spiritual leader for Brith Shalom Jewish Center in Erie, Pennsylvania, and the associate rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Pittsburgh. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Clergy Association.