I sent the following post to my Beit Midrash email list last week, and received enough positive feedback that I've decided to post it here. (I hope my non-Canadian readers will excuse the Canadianisms):
A friend of mine in university once commented to me that if he could change just one Jewish law, it would be the requirement of reciting Shema in the first quarter of each day, every day. Observers of this rule can never sleep in, and he just wanted a day to sleep late, on occasion.
My friend was right: Jewish law emphasizes an intense consistency, a "No Days Off" mentality. But while this can be difficult to maintain, every once in a while I come across good reminders of why "No Days Off" is an important commitment. This week's reminder came from an American football player named Stephen Gostkowski.
A little background: In American football, scoring a touchdown is worth 6 points, and a team that scores a touchdown may then kick a ball between posts about 28 meters away and more than 3 meters in the air, earning one "extra point".
Stephen Gostkowski is a kicker of remarkable consistency; he plays for the New England Patriots. Between the last regular season game of the 2006 season, and the last playoff game of this year's season, Gostkowski set a record by kicking 523 extra points in a row. (The next-best streak was by Matt Stover, with 422 extra points in a row.)
This past Sunday, Gostkowski finally missed. With the Patriots playing against the Denver Broncos, and a berth in the Super Bowl at stake, Gostkowski finally missed an extra point. To make a long football explanation short: Had he made #524, the Patriots would likely have gone into overtime against the Broncos, with the momentum in favour of the Patriots. Instead, the Patriots lost.
Gostkowski was 52 for 52 in kicking extra points in the regular season, as the team won 12 of their 16 games - but in only one of those victories did the extra point make a difference. Most of those kicks did not change the result of a game. The one that Gostkowski missed, though, made a large difference in ending the Patriots' season.
My point is not to discuss football, or who should have won. Rather, my point is that the "No Days Off" mentality matters because, as Pirkei Avot (2:1) says, we don't know which mitzvah is going to matter in an extraordinary way.
Stephen Gostkowski kicked 523 in a row, but the one that got away was the one that could have helped carry his team to the Super Bowl. That kind of pressure can be positive, if we embrace it not out of anxiety or drudgery, but out of excitement, as we ask ourselves: We say Shema every morning and evening; we give tzedakah and perform acts of chesed (generosity) for every needy person we meet; we learn Torah daily. Which mitzvah will be the one that changes the game?