And When the Heroes Crumble
December 18th, 2009
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
I can't remember the first sports figure of whom I was disillusioned. There were always rumors circulating around Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin, but they never made the front pages and I don't ever remember reading them in the sports section. When they retired in their prime like Sandy Koufax, I didn't see them crumble like the statues of Greece and Rome. Without the designated hitter slot, once they couldn't run and throw, their careers were over. I remember pitchers like Early Wynn and others struggling to win three hundred games, almost a guarantee to enter the Hall of Fame. Somehow we were permitted to keep our heroes, see them sanctified in the sports' pantheons and then enshrined in memory. It really hurt to learn that Bobby Thompson's home run off of Ralph Branca might have been aided by telescopes in the scoreboard and phoning back information about the pitches. Yet, he still had to hit it.
What about the George Washingtons, Thomas Jefferson's, Abraham Lincolns of this country, the David ben Gurions, Chaim Weitzmanns, Moshe Dayans and Yitzchak Rabins of Israel? The stories and myths of our countries provide the foundations of our existence and the motivation for our perpetuation. They infuse us with meaning and spirit. They rally our energies and urge us forward. And when the hero crumbles, the hurt can be intense because each of these components is afflicted. We want, we need, maybe incorrectly but true, someone to look up to, someone larger than life, whose deeds determine our future and destiny for the good, whose wisdom creates greater meaning, whose strength enter our bodies and make us stronger, whose music can soothe us or set our feet marching, singing like the angels. Maybe it is the child that always will reside within us, optimists and cynics alike, and shape our souls, to want to look up to someone as we as children looked up to our parents. And while the direction of that glance will change as we grow up, later on the incline will return to that original disposition as we as adults realize that we don't have all the answers to the challenges of life and wonder how our parents did so well.
Looking within the Holy text of our Torah, neither patriarch nor matriarch is elevated to the status of a saint. None of them are perfect. They are portrayed in all the pain and pathos of their humanity. They sin. They hurt. They cause pain. Yet God speaks to them even in or especially in their brokenness. They are the bearers of The Message, The Word, and we are their descendants in all our fragile and mortal humanity. Perhaps our story is strong because it is not based on the delicate pedestal of supposed flawlessness and faultlessness. We are not perfect either. We do not stand on the pedestal of moral superiority. Each holy person struggles to be right, to be good, to be moral, and to be ethical. Perhaps that is the greatness of our being human. That is the depth of having souls, the unique gift bestowed to the human kingdom.
I am saddened but not surprised over the downfall of Tiger Woods. Perhaps there were rumors circulating about his sexual behavior that did not make the sports pages of the Times-Dispatch but accompanied him from green to green, from golf course to golf course. If place and position is assessed by money then certainly Tiger Woods occupied the highest level of the Greek sports pantheon. Yet when there are homeless under the bridges and overpasses of Richmond tonight in this snow storm, while people are worried about food on their tables, paying the mortgage or losing their homes or a job, the sums of money that he has earned and commands is beyond my grasp. The disparity between these scenes is greater than any distance fathomable. The Hubble telescope's furthest reaches are closer than the divide between Tiger Woods and the homeless and the helpless. Indeed if he never swung his club again, never endorsed another product, he could live forever on his past earnings. He doesn't have to worry about anything ever again, financially. Only a select few have that privilege.
The Rabbis teach us that of all the riches in the world, the supreme, and the highest most esteemed is that of a good name, shem tov. As we are born clean and untainted it is bestowed upon us by our loving God. We don't have to do anything to get it. It is a gift. Our responsibility is to keep it pure, unsullied, unblemished and untarnished. It is not easy. The temptations before us are multiple and ceaseless. They are little and they are great. They stroke our ego and they dress our bodies. And yet our Judaism stills places the shem tov as the ultimate because it is the elevation of the soul in the purest imitation of God. It is the unfettered spirit that can soar without guilt, knowing that it has been good, lived goodly and did good deeds to others. The shem tov enlarges our vision about existence, about others and about good and evil. The greatest epitaph ever written should say: "He/she was born with a shem tov and died with a shem tov." No greater accolade could be given for this says it all, better than any Hall of Fame for any sport.
Tigers Woods was given a shem tov in his birth and his talent caused the media to embellish his reputation, his shem. That is not the same asshem tov. He has lost it, most ignobly. At Talmud class this week I speculated whether he can do teshuvah, repentance for his sins, for in this episode there are so many. Not just because of the alleged number of women but because he has brought shame upon his family, his wife, and his children. I was, am, always proud to say that my father is Henry Creditor. I do everything to insure that my children can say that they are proud that I am their father. What will his children say? How does his wife hold her head up in public? What about all the people who earned their living because of him and with the fall out of this disgraceful episode will be terribly hurt? What about all the youth who looked up to him, put him on a pedestal, idolized him and wanted to be like him? Must every hero crumble into dust? This disappointment and despair in others is a sin at his feet. At what price can a shem tov be bought? How much does it cost to reacquire respect, dignity and honor? What is the fee to repair the damage in his marriage, with his children? Sometimes it is beyond even the millions he has earned.
Yet even in brevity of these remarks I wish to include one more thought. I am not surprised at any of this. In every type of media, from clothing advertisements to film, TV and computer, the values of fidelity and modesty, honor and respect are under siege. And to hold them up is tantamount to heresy. The list is endless of the plots that elevate exactly what Tiger Woods did. On the altar of ratings and profits our society is ready to sacrifice all that is sacred, even the marital bond, even the parental duty, especially our bodies, and our honor and our integrity. I followed the discussion is the media of the speaker at a public school that seemed to stress abstinence in a way that perhaps went overboard. Surely after all our admonishments there will be teenagers that engage in sex and they need to be knowledgeable and informed about safe practices, but the safest sex is only between two covenanted monogamous adults. The highest morality is when we respect the holiness of our bodies. The highest ethic is when we respect the bodies of others. Abstinence is that highest plane. What has Tiger Woods taught his children? What image has he portrayed to society? Maybe there are too many hypocrites that do the same as he, yet will hang him from the highest pole?
His demise should bring pause and contemplation about the quality of our society, of our heroes and our souls.
A good Jewish boy whose birth will soon be celebrated is cited as having quoted in part from Psalms37:12: "The meek shall inherit the earth" as part of longer piece in the fifth chapter of Matthew. I would commend it to Tiger Woods.
Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they that mourn for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see our God.
Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.
(Matthew 5: 3-9).
It might seem strange to you that I close these remarks in this vain but every sentiment espoused here come straight from our Torah and prophets, yet they are a shared heritage through their holy text.
If only all would live by the words of our faiths.