If you hear that word, it’s probably March.
Gonzaga University is a small Roman Catholic college in Spokane, WA, and ninety nine percent of Americans would never know that it exists if not for their basketball team which has been featured prominently in March Madness for sixteen years in a row. Most Americans go through their lives without a thought about Gonzaga until March, when suddenly Gonzaga becomes a word again.
March Madness is America’s favorite way to escape a winter that overstays its welcome. It is the perfect way to fill a deeply felt void in the lives of fanatical sports fans who have no more NFL games to watch, no endless baseball season to talk about, and NBA and NHL seasons that are in the throes of mid-season irrelevancy. For about a month each year, tens of millions of Americans tune in to watch college football teams battle it out in a one-loss-and-you’re-out tournament.
Then there are the brackets. The brackets are graphs where people put their predictions for who they think will win each game. To correctly predict all sixty-three games is a near impossibility, the odds of randomly getting it right are one in 9,200,000,000,000,000,000. Warren Buffet and Dan Gilbert have jointly offered a billion dollars to anyone correctly predicting the entire bracket, and no one even came close. But that doesn’t stop Americans from betting. Over $9.2 billion dollars were wagered on last year’s March Madness, the vast majority of it, illegal, untaxed, and unregulated.
There are many levels of fans partaking in the Madness of March. Let’s try to list them in order of madness.
The Faux Fan
This guy doesn’t really care about sports, but he works in an office where everyone is bracket crazy, and he wants to be cool, so he submits a bracket that is the exact copy of some expert’s bracket that he found online. He spends March Madness saying things like, “Crazy game with Gonzaga last night!” It’s a pretty safe line, every game is crazy in March Madness, and he didn’t have to say who won or lost, because he has no clue. Of course, the only thing that can trip him up is his cubicle neighbor looking at him like he’s crazy, “Dude! Gonzaga didn’t play last night!” But he has a prepared response for that, “Yeah I know, time flies in March Madness, that last game feels like it was just last night!”
When people say things like, “Who do you think played well last night?” he says, “I would say it was really a team effort. I thought their defense was struggling to get their rhythm early on, but in the end they really came together!” If pressed further, he’ll mumble something about James, hoping that one of the teams has a guy named James, either as a first name or a last name… March Madness for the Faux Fan is a scary month, he’s always afraid of being outed as a fake, but if he makes it through to the end, people will think he’s one of the cool people!
The Affinity Fan
This guy isn’t really a fanatic (the word from which fan is derived), but he knows that playing the college affinity is a good thing. Perhaps he went to Michigan or Michigan State, and all month he’s going to wear his school colors. Green and white sweaters, maize and blue ties, the occasional sweatshirt, he’s got all the gear. There are usually pictures of his whole family dressed in his college colors displayed prominently on his desk. He makes a lot of jokes poking fun at all the other teams, and occasionally walks out of the coffee room shouting slogans, “Go Blue!” or “Go Green, Go White!”
His knowledge of the game isn’t really deep, and most of the people in the office know that. But they do know about that time that he and his college buddies drove across the country to go to the NCAA championships to watch his team take the trophy, “Those were the days, those were the days!”
The Legitimate Fan
This guy really does love sports, he listens to sports radio when he’s in his car, his favorite channel is ESPN, and he’s got wagers in at least four different betting pools. He’s the guy whose wife resents March Madness, because all he wants to do is watch TV, if it were up to him, he’d watch all sixty three games. He’s the guy who knows stats, he can name the starting five of all sixty eight teams, he knows their coaches, and he can authoritatively argue that Duke should have been seeded at #9 and not #13.
During March Madness he spends most of the day checking his various sports websites and apps on his phone or talking to other Legitimate Fans about who they think will advance to the next round. The Legitimate Fan scares the daylights out of the Faux Fan and the Affinity Fan, they both avoid him like the plague for the entire month.
The Everyone Knows I’m Crazy Fan
Every office has one TEKICF. He’s the guy who puts off scheduled surgery so that he can miss work during March Madness and no one can hold it against him. “I know it’s November, but Doc, work with me, can’t we do this kidney transplant in March?” This is the guy who has pennants, flags, and sports memorabilia all over his office. He’s going to the NCAA championships every year, it doesn’t matter who playing. His boss knows not to schedule any meetings for the whole three weeks of March Madness, he’ll say he’s coming, then call in sick.
This guy doesn’t like to talk to the Legitimate Fans, they are way too rational and all they want to talk about are numbers and stats. The Everyone Knows I’m Crazy Fan would rather talk loudly and use a lot of hand gestures to get his point across. “Dude, I’m telling you Stanford is not making it to the Sweet Sixteen this year! They are GOING DOWN TONIGHT! Yup, bye bye Cardinals! Go back to your pretty campus and study physics, Kentucky is gonna tear you apart!” This is the guy that the Faux Fan gravitates to. The Faux Fan agrees with TEKICF about pretty much everything, and TEKICF slaps him heartily on the back, and says things like, “You got that right buddy, you got that right!”
The Everyone Knows I’m Crazy Fan is the guy who goes to the games, spending his children’s college money to get there. He’s the guy wearing paint in his team’s colors all over himself, he’s the guy who comes home from every game so hoarse he can barely speak. He’s the guy initiating the wave in his stadium section with wild up and down motions. He alone raises the noise level in the stadium by four or five decibels.
The home teams appreciate TEKICF, they spend tons of money on tickets, hot dogs and beer. They buy enormous amounts of team merchandise, and they send donations to the athletics department to help support their huge budgets. They lose none of their faith in their team even when it’s record is 2-17. They make a lot of noise to help disorient the other team during the game. They show their support of the team in the most vocal way, and the team is inspired by the shouting masses to play harder. They are the best of fans, and every team needs lots of them to thrive. But they are not the people doing the most for the team. That would be the players.
College players in top teams have an incredibly rigorous training schedule. They are in the gym for hours every day running, jumping, dribbling, and shooting. They work closely with trainers who prepare individualized workouts for them; some will dribble with both hands for ten minutes straight, take a break, and do it again. Some will shoot three pointers for hours on end in a dark gym with only one light above the basket. Some will run ten miles straight wearing shirts with weights imbedded in them. These young men will spend thousands of hours training each year, and will push themselves relentlessly for every inch of improvement. Fans show their devotion, players live their devotion.
Fans are great, players are better.
This Sunday is Purim, a day that is a favorite Jewish holiday for many. What’s not to like? Creative food gifts being distributed across the community, children dressed up and hyped up on way too much sugar, lots of charity flowing out of people’s checkbooks, and amazing feasts with good friends. But Purim is a holiday that holds incredible power, and like everything about Purim, it lies just below the surface.
The Arizal and the Vilna Gaon both point out that the day we usually think as the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippurim is actually one step below Purim. In Hebrew Yom Kippurim has two meanings, one is “The day of Atonements,” and the other meaning is “The Day Like Purim.” When you compare two things, the one your compare others to is the greater one. “Bob is rich like Warren Buffet,” usually means that Buffet is richer, otherwise you would say “Buffet is rich like Bob!” So if Yom Kippur is being compared to Purim, on some level Purim must be greater. How?
Purim and Yom Kippur are actually polar opposites, on one we abstain from the world, generally abstain from social situations and spend the day immersed in prayer, in deep private conversations with G-d. On Purim we engage in the physical world with gusto. Eating a feast is a mitzvah, drinking to excess is a mitzvah, we spend the day engaging with others, bringing them gifts, dancing and singing with them. Why is Purim the greater of them?
The Talmud tells us (Shabbos 127A), “Greater is inviting in guests than greeting the face of the Shechina (G-d).” This is learned from the story of Avraham our Forefather who was in middle of a visit with G-d when he saw a few travelers passing by. He asked G-d to kindly wait while he tended to the guests, and ran off to invite them into his house. This seems very perplexing, how could Avraham walk out on G-d to help some strangers? But our Rabbis explain that the only thing greater than communicating with G-d is being G-dly! While Avraham was talking to G-d, he was undoubtedly reaching great spiritual heights, but when he ran out and began providing for guests, he was emulating G-d who takes care of us all, and in that way, he was doing something even greater.
On Yom Kippur, we connect with G-d. We are like G-d fans, we call out to Him, we fast for Him, and we wear His colors (our kittel and tallis). All we want to do all day is talk to Him, about how we are going to try to get even closer to Him throughout the upcoming year by removing any obstacles (sins) that prevent us from feeling closer to Him. On Purim, we are players, acting in a Divine way. Giving charity to the poor, the same way G-d supports the poor, giving gifts of food and partaking in big feats with other Jews to increase the love and friendship between Jews, the same way G-d’s very name is Shalom, peace.
We undoubtedly reach great heights on Yom Kippur, we are even compared to angels, but on Purim we take it a step farther, we try to be like G-d. We try to make it a day of endless giving and endless love.
Let’s use this Purim to cement greater love in hearts for one another, let’s bring gifts to people we tussled with during the year and clear the air, let’s give charity far beyond what we normally give, feeling our needy brothers pain as if it was ours. Let’s indulge in the world wholeheartedly, but in a way that follows G-d’s deepest desires for this world, “For I said, a world of kindness will be built. (Psalms 89:3)” On Yom Kippur we show our devotion to G-d, on Purim we live our devotion to G-d.
People trying to be like angels are great, people trying to be like G-d are better.
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s Torah portion, the Torah describes the different vestments worn by the Kohanim, the priests, in the Temple and Tabernacle. There is incredible detail given to the various vestments, from the ornate golden breastplate inlaid with twelve priceless gemstones, to the turquoise robe, or the golden forehead plate. The Torah describes the measurements, the materials, and even the particular weave technique used in each garment.
The Sagrs tell us that these garments were just as important as the sacrifices brought in the temple as the garments themselves were able to effect atonement for various sins. This seems a bit difficult to understand. We can appreciate how bringing a sacrifice would effect atonement. A person would have to spend money, shlep an animal all the way to Jerusalem, all the while thinking about what he did. Then he would bring it to the Temple, and the Kohain would have a long discussion with him before bringing the sacrifice which was supposed to represent him sacrificing himself. But how could the High Priest wearing some dazzlingly beautiful clothing help us atone for our sins?
Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman of Monsey, NY explains this idea with a beautiful concept. There are two motivators behind a person changing his ways. One is the person realizing just how negative his actions are, and what they have been doing to his life, his social circles, and most importantly his relationship with G-d. The other way is a person realizing just how great he truly is inside, and how great his potential is. This alone can motivate a person to reach higher.
The garments worn by the Kohanim, were external representations of what a person should like on the inside. When a person saw the High Priests golden breastplate with the names of all the Jewish tribes engraved on gemstones, he knew that his heart was really a golden receptacle of love for his fellow Jews. When a person saw the forehead plate of the High Priest with the words, “Holy to G-d” on it, he understood that his brain is supposed to be a supercomputer filled with holy thoughts and intellectual pursuit of G-d. Seeing the extreme modesty incorporated into the vestments, showed one the modest nature of his physical body. Thus the garments were able to motivate people to change by showing them how great they were, and inspiring them to rise up to the greatness they had.
There is a story about a Jewish boy who went off to find G-d on a Native American reservation, where he lived for years. After a very strange sequence of events, he was directed by a very revered shaman to go back to his people. He came back to NY, where he circled the Jewish neighborhoods, trying to reconnect, but found himself not connecting with anyone. Then he was told to meet a Rabbi Shlomo Friefeld from a yeshiva called Shor Yoshuv. He went to meet with him, with his dog Chika in the back of the pickup truck. The Rabbi received him warmly and treated him with great respect. He had never felt so esteemed by anyone and promised to return on the morrow.
The next day when he came to the yeshiva there was a bris going on. Rabbi Friefeld called sent someone to bring this ponytailed man in jeans and a T-shirt to the come stand right next to the Rabbi, and by now he was starting to feel like there was some greatness this Rabbi saw in him that he wasn’t even aware of, a greatness worth exploring.
But the act that changed him forever happened a few days later. On one of his visits with the Rabbi Friefeld, the Rabbi was called out of the study for a moment, and this man decided to poke around the office a bit. He noticed with surprise a pile of books on the floor, and knew that the Rabbi would never leave holy books on the floor. Intrigued, he picked up the books, and saw that they were all about Native American culture and life.
He realized that Rabbi Friefeld valued him so much that he had taken out time to try to understand who he was and what made him tick. If the Rabbi saw so much value in him that he went to such lengths to be able to interact with him in a way he could understand, there was clearly some untapped greatness in him. He set about finding it, and today is a great Torah scholar, another person motivated by the greatness Rabbi Friefeld showed him he had.
This week we read from two Torah Scrolls.From the first one we read Parshat Titzaveh, the weekly portion, and from the other one we read Parshat Zachor, a special parsha that is always read the Shabbos before Purim.
Parshat Teztaveh begins with the commandment to bring only the purest olive oil for lighting the menorah. It then continues with the vestments worn by the Kohanim and the Kohain Gadol, the regular priests and the High Priest.
Here is the basic breakdown: all priests wore white linen pants, covered by a white linen tunic, wrapped up in a multicolored belt, and a white linen hat (the shape of the High Priest’s hat differed slightly from that of the regular priests.) The Kohain Gadol wore 4 additionalvestments; a blue robe, an apron-like garment, a breastplate made of multicolored wool and containing a gold plate with twelve precious stones, and a gold head plate with the words “Holy to G-d” engravedon it. After Ha-shem tells Moshe what the Kohanim will wear, Hecommands him about the sacrifices and services that will serve as the inauguration of the Msihkan, the Tabernacle.
Quick lesson: Contrary to what many would like to believe, the clothes we wear make a big statement about who we are, as they are the primary way we represent ourselves to the outside world, who don’t know us through any other medium. It is for this reason that the discussion of the inaugural service can come only after the commandments telling the Kohanim how they have to dress during the service. One cannot say on the inside I will serve G-d, but to the outside world I can appear any way I would like. The Torah here tells us that au contraire we must first ensure that the way we portray ourselves is consistent with our ideals, before we go in to serve G-d!
The parsha continues with the description of the Tamid, a twice-daily sacrifice brought in the Mishkan or Beit Hamikdash, and finishes with a depiction of the Incense Altar.
Quote of the Week: If you are doing your best, you will not have time to worry about failure. ~ Robert Hillyer
Random Fact of the Week: When hippos are upset, their sweat turns red.
Funny Line of the Week: I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.
Having a Joyous Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham