What Sports Can Teach Us About Moses, God & The Israelites

by Micah Sperling, ‘AB 16

Community Building Intern

Some coaches are like Moses and some are like Joshua. The first category, the Moses guys, are the ones who you bring in when your franchise needs a total rebuild; the ones who can take a 2-14 team without a franchise quarterback and take them to 9-7 a couple seasons later without any superstar signings. They’re the Gary Kubiaks, the David Moyeses and the Stan van Gundys of the world. They’re excellent coaches but not guys you would turn to to get your team a title.

Then there are the Joshuas. Some examples are Nick Saban, Rex Ryan, Jose Mourinho and (and I’m sorry, Lakers and Bulls fans) Phil Jackson. They’re the ones you bring in after the Moses coach to take your team from good to elite.

The fact that I’m even making this point (besides showing that I’m weirdly obsessed with both sports and reading way too many modern analogies into Torah stories) shows that there must be somewhere in the text where the difference between these two types comes up. And indeed there is! In Exodus 3:10, God says to Moses, “I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.” He’s basically saying, “I’m giving you a 1-15 team without a franchise quarterback and severely lacking at the skill positions. Go get them to 9-7.” Moses doesn’t get to lead the team—the Israelites—to the promised land of Canaan (or a championship, for that matter) because God recognizes what so many team owners and general managers don’t—that Moses is the right guy for one part of the job, but not for finishing it off.

Putting a Moses into a Joshua role—or vice-versa—can have severely limiting effects on a franchise going forward. Phil Jackson’s first year with the Knicks has been, by most accounts, an unmitigated disaster. Nobody expected this team to win a title, but most pundits thought that they’d be hovering around the 8th seed in the East. Nobody anticipated that they’d be setting records for futility. But that’s the exact danger of bringing a Joshua into a Moses situation. Jackson might be the best coach in the history of sports at turning a group of good players he inherited into championship squads. On each of those teams, he had a superstar; each team had a solid supporting cast. The Knicks probably figured they needed a Joshua to come coach them. The difference is that, while Jackson has proven his unique ability to get a group of good-but-not-elite role players to play above their level around a superstar (or two), he’s never shown that he can take a below-average group and make them simply good. That’s what the Knicks needed for the next, say, two years before they fire whatever Moses coach (George Karl, maybe?) that they chose to use and bring in Jackson to bring the team a title.

The David Moyes disaster at Manchester United shows what happens when the opposite comes true. Moyes spent 11 years managing an Everton team that initially fluctuated wildly between the top and bottom of the league before settling as a solidly upper-mid-table team. For a side that never had a superstar, Moyes was the perfect manager. He was able to get a group of below-average to just-above-average players to play as a significantly above-average unit. Then Manchester United came calling. Should Moyes have been given another year to learn how to manage a team made up of only superstars rather than a team that didn’t have any? Sure. But that’s not the point. He didn’t succeed right away because the definition of success at United was so different. He approached the United team very much like it was Everton in 2009. It was the only way he knew how to coach. Soccer fans saw what happened next.

It sounds silly to say, but Moses is a Moses coach. In our most recent jUChicago meeting, my fellow Community Building interns and I spent the bulk of our time arguing about why Moses is not allowed to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land. Is he being punished? Is it because he’s not cut out to be a leader? I’d argue that the explanation has a lot to do with God being a really, really good general manager. Moses took the 1-15 Israelites from slavery to the edge of their own state. He coached them with a dedication that the Bengals’ Marvin Lewis would admire and carried them to the edge of the promised land—the verge of the playoffs. Unlike the Bengals administration, though, God realized that Moses wasn’t the guy to win a playoff game. He gave Moses an audition to prove that he had turned into Gregg Popovich (the incident with hitting a rock to bring forth water). Moses didn’t pass this test, but we can’t read him as a failure. He did exactly what he’d been hired to do. He made the Israelites a playoff team. It was time to step aside and let someone else win them the ring.

Jewish Learning as Fuel for Creativity

jU holds innovation and creativity as central values. While this means a lot of experimentation and new ideas, it also demands becoming steeped in the Jewish tradition and its key ideas, practices, and wisdom. In fact, we see text study as an important driver of innovation; the interpretation and re-interpretation of our ancient texts is a creative enterprise that challenges our student interns to see Judaism as a wisdom tradition that is relevant to their lives today.

Our year-long internship program includes one full quarter dedicated to weekly text study led by Executive Director Dan Libenson. Largely through the study of Biblical texts about Moses’s journey as a leader, but also using texts from the Talmud, Dan helps the interns find lenses through which to read and experience Jewish texts that resonate for them. “In the Jewish tradition, it is said that there are ’70 faces to the Torah,’” says Dan, "and that everyone present at the time of the giving of the Torah heard it in a slightly different way.” Our goal is to help each intern find the way in which they best relate to Jewish texts—for some, this is a traditional lens, while others resonate with a mythic lens, a linguistic lens, a practical lens, and a wide variety of other lenses. Our goal is for each intern to find his or her lens and voice in relating to Jewish texts and ideas.

Students are encouraged to write about their own interpretations of Jewish values and philosophy, which we publish on our blog. These essays have even been cross-published in online publications like New Voices and Moment Magazine, showing that our students are able to make valuable contributions to the ongoing conversations around Jewish life.

When our students graduate from the internship program, we give them the gift of Unscrolled, a book in which contemporary writers, artists, actors and filmmakers (including some of the most popular Hollywood writers of today) wrestle with and creatively interpret the 54 weekly Torah portions that are read throughout the year.

Our emphasis on Jewish learning is meant to cultivate young leaders who see within Jewish text and tradition the raw materials to create the Jewish future.

What jU Interns Learned this Quarter

All quarter long, our delightful jU interns went through a four-step design thinking process (empathy, define, ideate & prototype) with the aim of re-imagining what our Sukkot experience on campus might look like for next fall. Also--and maybe this goes without saying--we ate a lot of snacks.

1. Empathy: We built the Sukkah together, observed students interacting with it, and interviewed some folks who were there about their experience with the holiday and with our Sukkah.

2. Define: We decided that we wanted to come up with a Sukkah experience that would allow the busy but inquisitive Jews of UChicago to learn something new about Sukkot in only a few minutes.

3. Ideate: We practiced building ideas together as a group by learning about the art of improv, and then generated hundreds of ideas via collaborative brainstorming.

4. Prototype: After voting for the best themes (Environmentalism/Sustainability, Storytelling & Food), we split into three groups to develop prototypes of Sukkot experiences inspired by each of these themes.

This process allowed us to learn about Sukkot and practice a process by which a group can generate and build strong ideas together, and gave us a chance to inhabit the role of Jewish ritual innovators. 

Support a Third Party Candidate

The 68th Annual Latke Hamantash Debate has just announced its line-up of all-star faculty debaters! You can read the press release from the University here. While we reject the false binary of the latke-hamantash question, we are nonetheless very proud to be part of the team of organizations, University staff, faculty and students working together to present this very special event.

We welcomed over 100 Students to our Open Space Sukkah

Despite some unpredictable weather, over 100 students came by to eat, chill and play in our Open Space Sukkah on the Quad.

The Sukkah is a temporary booth constructed for use during the Jewish festival of Sukkot. This year's Sukkah was designed to highlight the theme of impermanence and the imperative to truly inhabit our present moment in the face of an ever-changing world. Inspired by interactive art installations, our interns created special art pieces for the Sukkah, and designed opportunities for other students to make their own mark on the Sukkah through temporary media like Polaroids, origami and sunprints.

268 Students Participate in our Host-at-Home High Holidays Initiative

268 student guests. 18 student hosts. 12 Rosh Hashanah Meals. 8 Yom Kippur Break Fasts. 1 Tashlich. In their dorms and apartments, during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, UChicago students created a variety of personal, thoughtful and creative ways to mark the High Holidays. We surveyed our student hosts, and 100% of the respondents said they would not have hosted a High Holidays meal without the support provided by this initiative, which connected them with financial support, ritual items and consulting.

670+ Students Served by jUChicago in 2013-14 Academic Year

In our second year on campus, we've made it a priority to gather as much data about the students who engage with jU-supported programs as possible. While numbers aren't the only thing that matters, we were blown away to tally them up at the end of this academic year and find that over 670 unique students have participated in Jewish experiences created by student interns and jU Staff.

These experiences happen in student apartments and dorms, in on-campus spaces, restaurants and coffee shops. The vast majority of them are created by students, or with strong input from students. They encompass everything from home-cooked Shabbat meals to Jewish yoga to nature walks.

We believe that students are the experts at engaging other students, and we think that this year's numbers are a good indication that, together with our student interns, we're building a highly effective model for Jewish engagement on campus.