It was April 3, 2001, with Passover just a week away. The night before, Duke had won the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship, beating Arizona two days after a semi-final game win over Maryland where they had been down 22 points in the first half. Coming a few years after back-to-back titles in the Christian Laettner-Bobby Hurley-Grant Hill era, this was Duke's - and Coach Mike Krzyzewski's - third championship. Driving to work that morning, I was listening to basketball maven Billy Packer on the radio, and I heard him say something of which I took particular note. What he said was the following: "Now that Coach K has three rings to his name, any other coach looking to establish his own reputation will have to go through Mike Krzyzewski." A simple enough statement, but suddenly I found myself with a new insight regarding the Exodus, and perhaps the entire Torah. Of course, I said to myself, that's exactly what Passover is about. To be the man, you've got to beat the man. Here was Pharaoh, the most powerful ruler around. He was, as Billy Packer might say, the Coach K of his day - at least insofar as any aspirant to power wishing to establish his own name would have to go through Pharaoh. Only by defeating Pharaoh could any other person - or figure - establish his own pre-eminence. To assert His sovereignty in the universe, it would not be sufficient for the God of Israel to proclaim Himself as such - it was by bringing the greatest power on earth to his knees that God would unequivocally establish His name. This is the point of God's message to Moses when He tells him: "Go before Pharaoh and tell him: Thus says the Lord God of the Hebrews: 'Let My people go ... for I will send my plagues into your midst and among the people, that you may know that there is none like Me in all the earth. ... I shall show you My power that My name may be declared throughout all the world.'" (Exodus 9:12-17) An even greater measure of drama is lent to the epic encounter by God hardening Pharaoh's heart at each step of the way, allowing for an unfolding display of miracles and might. It is not simply the liberation of the Israelites from slavery per se that is at the center of the Exodus and the events we recall at Passover - it is that God redeemed our people (at least in the way our ancestors pictured it to be) with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. To be sure, one victory does not a champion make, (consider the many miracles performed by the Almighty that we recall when we recite Dayenu at the Seder), but when 28-year-old Trevor Immelman won the 2008 Masters Tournament, the fact that he beat four-time Masters winner and golfing legend Tiger Woods in the process made the moment all the more meaningful. When the Red Sox came back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Yankees in 2004 Pennant play and went on to win the World Series, it was that victory over their historic rivals that helped to establish the Bosox not only as the winners that year, but as a true championship franchise. Perhaps the sport analogy only carries so far, but the point is that there are those individuals who set the standard for others to emulate. Coach K has been such a figure. So have Tiger, and Roger Federer (and Dean Smith and Jack Nicklaus and Pete Sampras before them).
The Final Four, the Masters and the World Series are events for our time. The Exodus is an event for all times. Passover is a fitting occasion to recall that the bar has been set for us, a time to be reminded that we were once slaves in Egypt, and that just as victory in sports can only have meaning when all compete on a level playing field, freedom can only have meaning when all people are free.
The question posed by the youngest child at the Seder is meant to underscore the traditions that make Passover and the Seder night indeed different from all other nights. Yet in every day usage the most famous line from the Haggadah is often cited as if to say "So why should this situation be any different from all the other times that ..." And that is the way it was meant just before Game 5 of the 2004 NBA Playoffs pitting the Lakers against the Pistons. The Lakers were down 3-1, after a tough series and, with the constant Shaq - Kobe feuding, an even tougher year. During the press session with Pistons head coach Larry Brown before the game, a reporter raised the issue of referee bias, asking the Detroit coach the following: "Everyone says the close-out game in a series is always the toughest. With (Lakers coach) Phil Jackson pulling out all the stops, have you warned your players that they may have to be going five on eight tonight?" "Well," Brown replied, "on Passover we always ask: 'Why is this night different from all other nights?'" That night did prove different when the Pistons garnered the victory, giving Brown his first NBA ring.
Passover serves not only to recall the ancient liberation of our people, but our future redemption as well. Tradition holds that Elijah the Prophet will be the harbinger of the Messiah's appearance. On Passover eve, Jewish families around the world open the door to welcome Elijah to their Seder meal, a special cup of wine having been set for him on the Seder table. What is less known is that Elijah figures into soccer games - at least in Israel where it is the most popular sport. When a match ends in a tie, in Hebrew this is called ת"ק"ו (teyku), an acronym for Tishbi yitareitz kushiyot uva'ayot (Elijah the Tishbi will settle difficulties and problems). When the rabbis in Talmudic times would reach a legal stalemate, unable to render a definitive ruling in their deliberations or find in favor of either side in an argument, they would declare the issue unresolved for now - a draw - proclaiming that in the future days of the Messiah, Elijah will provide a clear decision on the matter. This is but one example of how modern Hebrew has drawn upon its ancient roots and traditions to come up with words and expressions for contemporary life.
Excerpted from Baseballs, Basketballs and Matzah Balls: What Sports Can Teach Us About the Jewish Holidays... and Vice Versa © 2009 by Rabbi Mitchell Smith