Sunday, January 31, 2016

523, but not 524

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?


  1. But he didn't take the day off. He showed up and did his job to the best of his ability. I think the analogy would only really hold up if he'd decided to sit on the sideline and let the backup kicker attempt the point instead. Or are you suggesting that he lacked sufficient kavannah during this particular attempt?

  2. I would never assume anything about Gostkowski's kavvanah. My point is only that his experience demonstrates that we never know which opportunity will be the one that matters.

  3. thanks for the nice message. Just to be a stickler about it;Even if it was early in the game Gostovki did indeed know that in such a high stakes, do or die game, every point carries tremendous significance thus he knew to some extent right before attempting that particular kick how much the point DID matter whereas you want to suggest that in the moment of any given mitzvah performance we don't know how much it is going to matter.

    Also, my impression of Mitzvas is that in general it's the constitency that counts most - Keves Echad baboker/tzaharyim. Sounds more hollywoodish to live our religious lives thinking about which time it's "really" gonna count for extra. "Ee ata yodaya Matan scharan shel mitzvos " relates more to categories of Mitzvos then it does to temporal discrepancies of the same mitzvah. Obviously difficulty of circumstances can change significance of a mitzvah but you will generally feel the extra difficulty involved in meeting the mitzvah in that scenario just as gostovski felt the extra significance of his kick at that time. I would think doing the exact same mitzvah with theoretically same level of yetzer Harah at the time in both would yield equal significance unless you confound the picture with impact it had on others in one of them.
    Also, the comparison may have a paradoxically discouraging effect. Pressure certainly can enhance performance, but in Gustowski's case it probably did him in. If we felt the gravidity of every mitzvah as Gustosvki did his kick, would we be all the better for it? CHazal say Ashrei adam mefached tamid, but in the long run it may not be so emotionally healthy to be excessively preoccupied in such thoughts rather than just doing the mitzvos with sincerity and enthusiasim without considering the maybe this time my mitzvah will be extra legit.

    1. Hi Anonymous,
      My point was not to say that Gostkowski didn't value the kick, only that we never know which kicks will be of value.
      I do agree with your point re: the value of consistency, and it is true that I played it down in order to teach a separate lesson. But Pirkei Avos does likewise, so I felt comfortable doing so.
      Re: the challenge of maintaining that level of intensity - It is difficult, but I do think we are better off when we try. Hence שוב יום אחד לפני מיתתך, etc.

  4. Doesn't it show that no matter how many good and proper times you do things (523), at some point you will fail, and it will have horrendous consequences. So:-
    1. what's the point of trying for the 523?
    2. Has Hashem set us up to fail?

    1. Anonymous 10:07 PM-
      Thanks for writing, but I don't understand - why does this event demonstrate that one must fail, or that the failure will have horrendous consequences?

      But even separating from this story, and accepting that one must fail at some point, I don't believe that the consequences of failure (however horrendous) must outweigh the good accomplished with the previous successes.

    2. At some point, the human person will fail, because at eg point 101, you would have said how great he was going. Likewise at 102, 103 right up to an incredible 523. Then all of a sudden at 524, you bring out his "failure" to point out how important it was not to fail, and what he could have achieved. Aren't you asking too much from us?

      Au contraire, your last point destroys your nimshul. If you are now saying that the good outweighs the bad, then let him (and therefore us) fail occasionally and we should not feel too bad about it, because our good outweighs the bad.

      I am just trying to point out that it is dangerous to look at incidents or groups of incidents within artificially created limits (eg start of a winning run, and not his attempts previously and n ot what happens afterwards). That is Hashem's purview and calculation.

      We are only able to look at individual incidents - much like the chassidic concept of hamechadesh bechl yon tovo maseh bereishis , that hashem creates the world anew every second, and it is the present that is important to us, and we can restart our avodah at any time, notwithstanding what happened before.

      That is what I was hoping to hav e brought out what I meant by failure - because we are human, we will fail, but we should not feel too bad about it to prevent us from continuing to strive for whatever we need to do, without the worrying feelings of "what if?.

      I feel that the "no days off" mentality can be taken to extremes (admittedly, everything can) and can lead to depression when we do fail, often spectacularly.