Super-Bowl and Super-Questions
A Mundane Game Brings Heavenly Questions
Rabbi Moshe Taub
G-d superbowl . does G-d care who wins the world series superbowl stanley cup world cup playoffs match sports Gd
I find that I receive many varied and unique inquiries during football season. Many questions I am asked relate to kashrus, especially considering that many of the foods traditionally served at football games had their birth in Buffalo (eg. Buffalo Wings, Beef on Weck, etc.): “May parve chili in a milcheg pot be served with Buffalo Chicken Wings?” (Possibly) “Is it feasible to kasher a deep fryer?” (Best to avoid) “May an avel attend a ‘Superbowl Party’”? (No) “Is it permissible to gamble on sporting events?” (Beyond the scope of this column. See article 'Gambling In Halacha').
While some may take issue with the entire enterprise of shomrei torah u’mitzvos involving themselves in such events, we have spoken in the past of the imperative recognition of the distinction between a shailo b’halacha (Halachik query) and a shailo b’hashkofah (a philosophical query). See however beginning of Rus Rabbah.
But there is one question that relates to the superbowl that may give us an opportunity to broach an important topic, one that people know little about.
When I worked for the state as a chaplain in the NYS penitentiary system I was allowed to make my own schedule. This meant that the inmates would not know which day I would be coming, rather an announcement would go out when I arrived that the rabbi is here and that all Jewish inmates should go to his office if they would like to meet with him. Because of such impromptu visitation I had no appointment ledger rather, when I came, it was first come first served.
On one such day I noticed that there were more people waiting outside my office than usual. After a few private one-on-ones I heard several chairs move at once and looked up to see five large, menacing looking men walk into my office. They were clearly not Jewish. This much I can say, “I was not not scared”.
I waited for them to speak first, as I was not about to say the wrong thing.
“Rabbi”, their foreman began, “if we ask you a question do you promise us to tell the truth?”
“Of course” I guardedly replied.
“Well Rabbi, you are a man of Gd and therefore you have access to information that common folk and criminals like us do not…”
‘Where was this going?’ I wondered to myself.
“…[W]e need you to tell us something, and we promise not to share it with anyone else: Who is going to win the Super-Bowl tonight?”
In prison, like on the outside, there is a lot riding on this game. While prisoners do not have cash on hand to gamble, they do bet with cigarettes and, sometimes, contraband.
I explained that if I indeed had such powers I would use it to benefit myself and not them, and I would then be a very wealthy man who likely would not be in a prison office on a Sunday afternoon.
But their question is, in fact, an interesting one. Is there hashgacha pratis (direct Divine intervention) on such arbitrary events?
Can one, then, daven for ‘their’ team to win?
Certainly, we are only using the superbowl as a jumping off point to the larger issue.
We are well aware that it is a principle of our faith that in addition to believing in the Gd described in the Torah and our writings we must also believe that He is directly involved in, and has control of, this world; that He is a mashgiach of His world. In addition to being listed in his 13 yesodos found in his introduction to perek chelek, in Hilchos Teshuva (3:7) the Rambam halachikly codifies one who does not believe this as a “min”, a heretic.
We also know that there exist two types of hashgacha: hashgacha klalis and hashgach pratis, general vs. exact (or surgical) management and stewardship. How to define these two concepts, as well as understanding when Hashem employs each one is a fundamental and controversial issue.
Briefly, the Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 3:17) is of the opinion that Hashem “does not direct each leaf that falls…or rules from on-high that a certain big fish shall eat a smaller fish”. While the Rambam’s view will certainly seem controversial to the homan am today, even the Rambam would agree that this view speaks only of a domeim (inanimate objects), tzomeich (plant life, growing organisms) and a chay (living creatures other than Man), while events that affect mankind are indeed controlled by Gd’s hashgacha pratis. Many (Gra [Yahal Ohr], Baal Shem Tov [see shut Minchas Elazar 1:20], et al.) argue and seek to prove that Gd in fact does control, with hashgacha pratis, even the falling of each leaf, that teva (nature) itself is controlled by a hashgacha pratis. According to either view it would seem that trivial events, which are played by and affects man, would be under Hashem’s direct stewardship.
Furthermore, once hashgach pratis is activated there is an additional idea termed “keilim” where Hashem considers elements beyond one’s merits (see Rav Dessler in Michtav M’Eliyahu 2:p.75 and Ramchal in Derech Hashem 2:3:7) whereby even if one (or a team for that matter) does not deserve something, should others be affected then that too is considered. One can then argue that there are few other mundane events that such a multitude of people have a direct financial and emotional interest in –for better or worse - like the Super-Bowl.
However, even this is not a zero-sum game. The pasuk states (Yirmiyahu 17:7) “Baruch hagever asher yivtach Bashem, V'haya Hashem mivtacho” (Blessed is the person who trusts Gd, and Gd will fulfill his trust) this alludes to a concept mentioned by the rishonim (see Rabbeinu Bachaya in Chovos Halvovos, beg. Shar HaBitochon; Ramban, Iyov, 36:7 “…abandoned (by Gd) to chance…”). For instance, should a man invest in and trust in the stock-market while leaving Gd out of the equation then indeed Hashem will bind him by those rules and His hashgacha can be removed. Conversely, the more one puts his trust in Hashem then the more hashgacha he will find in his life.
In addition to the hashgacha issue is the bechira (free-will) issue. Would not a team playing better than the other dictate, or at least add to, the outcome? Indeed, there is a natural tension between the fundamental belief in bechira chafshis (Bereishis 3:22) and the central idea of the hashgacha from Hashem (“All is in the hands of heaven…” Berachos 33b). Can one harm or hit another R’l should they so choose to regardless of the other’s deserving of the pain from on high? If yes, what of the idea that all comes from Hashem? If not, what about the idea of Free will? In order for bechira to be real would not, then, Hashem need to ‘surrender’ some control to us?
This too is debated. The Ohr HaChaim Hakodesh has a most unique approach where he explains that indeed, at times, a person could affect another’s fate! Using this thesis, he explains several events in Sefer Beresihis, in particular elements in the story of Yosef (see his commentary to 37:21 and 44:18; see also Zohar, Vayeshev p.185. This also seems to be the view of the Rambam. Cf. Gra as brought in kisvei kodesh R’ Yosef Zundel of Salant p.112 who, after indicating that the Ohr Hachaim’s approach had been accepted by the masses, strongly disagrees and states that nothing can happen to man without an official decree from on-high).
These are important questions and the reader is urged to speak to their mashpiah. I highly recommend to the learned reader a wonderful kuntrus on this topic: Chemda Geniza by Rabbi Halperin of Lakewood.
From all of the above we see that while certainly Hashem may choose to intervene in an event as seemingly insignificant as a sporting event, there is also reason to say that Hashem may choose to allow ‘nature’ to run its course, for most people who follow sports are ‘believing’ and pinning their hopes on its players and their skills (as Ramban and Rabbeinu Bachayay allude).
Legend has it that in 1795 when the young Menechem Mendel Morgenstorn (later to become the Kotzker Rebbe) was 7 years old he was asked, “Where is Hashem?” His famous reply?
“Wherever we let Him in”