July 21, 2024
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John Madden: The Enthusiastic Rebbe

Recently, football icon and American legend John Madden passed away. As a child, I spent many Sunday afternoons at my grandmother’s house watching John and his partner Pat Summerall announcing the best football games each week. While Madden was known for his iconic video game and also for leading the Oakland Raiders to Super Bowl Championships, he was most known for his gregarious and enthusiastic broadcasting style. Madden could make the most boring game seem fun and exciting, simply through his positive energy and trademark use of phrases like “BOOM!” “Whap!” or “BAM!” while describing a play using the video chalkboard.

Madden was the football equivalent to a great rebbe or maggid shiur who can bring to life the most dense Gemara shiur. Imagine John Madden teaching Bava Kama in a local yeshiva. The kids would turn out to be huge talmidei chachamim largely due to his enthusiasm. He would be drawing the case on a whiteboard and he might say, “So the cow, look how big it is, is headed right for the basket of fruit and then BAM! A huge ox slams right into it. Look, she went flying. And whap! She knocked right into the vegetable stand. How much is the owner of the ox obligated to pay? Is this true even in a reshut harabim (a public domain)?”

We all know great Torah teachers who have this enthusiasm. For those who do Daf Yomi, Rabbi Shalom Rosner and Rabbi Sruly Borenstein are two great maggidei shiur who are (lehavdil) the John Maddens of Gemara, who have a unique ability to bring each page to life.

This principle is true for those of us who reach out to our secular Jewish brethren. I’ve been learning Torah with students at Rutgers for 18 years and I always tell people who are learning with secular Jews that the topics they should study together are the ones that the teacher enjoys the most. Because this is what you will convey with the most happiness, enjoyment and enthusiasm. Our secular students will pick up on it and share in that joy.

Winners win in the January cold, not the September warmth

Great teams and great football coaches are judged, not so much about how they start the season but by how they finish. It isn’t hard to get inspired play from your football team in the shining sun of September when a new season starts. Teams at that point are still fresh from an offseason, they have relatively few injuries, and the cold wind and weather doesn’t play a factor in the games. True champions are the ones who can overcome the morass of a long season and the adversity that comes with it, dig deep to play well even with significant injuries, and surmount the inclement weather and difficult situations so that they rise to the top. Great quarterbacks such as Tom Brady, Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw always upped their game in the playoffs and Super Bowl.

The same is true in our Jewish journey. It isn’t that difficult to be a sincere and growing Jew in September. After all, chodesh Elul, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah appear in rapid succession. Inspiration and commitment abound. But the holidays fade away and the long, dark winter sets in. Chanukah provides us with a glimmer of light in the pervasive darkness. But once Chanukah is behind us, we have several months until Purim and Pesach come to rejuvenate (or “Rejewvenate”) us. What do we do in the meantime?

Jewish greatness can be seen in the day-to-day consistency of our actions. That’s why daily mitzvot such as a daily chesed, davening and a Daf Yomi shiur are so crucial.

Each January (before COVID) we join our parent program, Meor, and take our students on a life-changing journey to Poland. These seven days are beyond inspirational. We visit Holocaust sites, old shuls and villages and really take a deep dive into the lives of our ancestors who spent a millenium in Eastern Europe. We tell stories of their mesirat nefesh (self sacrifice), struggles and triumphs. The final Shabbos in Krakow is the grand finale of a week in a different world.

In January 2020, while on a Meor Poland trip with students from Rutgers, NYU and University of Maryland, we were talking to some of the guys about their inspiration. Rabbi Aron Dovid Eisemann of Meor NYU told the guys, “You can’t let this inspiration fizzle away. You have to do something long term and consistent so that your inspiration is actualized.”

One student, Daniel Mayeri, committed to putting on tefillin. A friend of mine, Dovi Zauderer, had joined the trip. He told the guys, “Whoever puts on tefillin for 100 days, I’ll buy them a pair of AirPods.” We had eight students who were interested. A WhatsApp group was formed and each of the eight students took a picture of themselves each day wearing tefillin. While not all of the tefillin pictures came in during morning hours (in fact, many would be taken just before sundown), the original eight made it to 100! But many continued to 365 (we had to explain to them that one doesn’t lay tefillin on Shabbos or holidays) and beyond. Some have dropped out, but some more have joined the chat and we have more students putting on tefillin each day.

While the inspiration of Poland was essential, it is the consistency of a mitzvah like tefillin that shows our growth and attachment to Hashem.


Rabbi Meir Goldberg is the director of Meor Rutgers Jewish Xperience at Rutgers University. He can be reached at [email protected].

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