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Baseball vs. Football – Helping the Homeless be Safe at Home

on Thursday, November 6 2014. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Comedian George Carlin had a fantastic routine called “Baseball vs. Football.”

Baseball is a 19th-century pastoral game. Football is a 20th-century technological struggle.

Baseball is played on a diamond, in a park. The baseball park! Football is played on a gridiron, in a stadium, sometimes called Soldier Field or War Memorial Stadium.

Baseball begins in the spring, the season of new life. Football begins in the fall, when everything is dying.

In football you wear a helmet. In baseball you wear a cap.

Football is concerned with downs. “What down is it?” Baseball is concerned with ups. “Who’s up? Are you up? I’m not up! He’s up!”

In football you receive a penalty. In baseball you make an error.

Football has clipping, spearing, piling on, personal fouls, late hitting, and unnecessary roughness. Baseball has the sacrifice.

Baseball has the seventh-inning stretch. Football has the two-minute warning.

Baseball has no time limit: “We don’t know when it’s gonna end!” Football is rigidly timed, and it will end, “even if we have to go to sudden death.”

In baseball, during the game, in the stands, there’s kind of a picnic feeling. Emotions may run high or low, but there’s not that much unpleasantness. In football, during the game in the stands, you can be sure that at least 27 times you were perfectly capable of taking the life of a fellow human being.

And finally, the objectives of the two games are completely different: In football, the object is for the quarterback, otherwise known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use the shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy’s defensive line. In baseball the object is to go home. And to be safe. “I’m going home! I hope I’ll be safe!”

While Carlin’s routine is witty and clever, the recent NFL scandals are no laughing matter. After serious allegations against star players, the NFL announced the appointment of one of its female executives to run a “social responsibility” team and hired three domestic violence and sex crimes experts as advisers.

The question of whether or not the violent and ferocious nature of football impacts players’ behavior off the field has been widely debated. Given the lack of statistical evidence, it is difficult, and perhaps unfair, to ascribe a causative relationship between playing football and ruthlessness off the field.

However, what is undeniably clear is that on the field football players are to show no mercy. The former pro football defensive tackle and current NFL Network announcer, Warren Sapp, was interviewed on a Tampa radio station a couple of weeks ago. He chose that platform to vent about the behavior of a member of his old Buccaneers team, the defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who helped an opponent to his feet after a play was over. “To see him reach down and help the running back up and help the lineman up, I almost threw up,” Sapp said.

A few years ago, James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers was fined $75,000 for using his helmet to knock not just one Cleveland Brown player out of the game, but two. After the game, he wasn’t shy to explain: “I don’t want to see anyone injured, but I’m not opposed to hurting anyone. There’s a difference. When you’re injured, you can’t play. But when you’re hurt, you can shake it off and come back, maybe a few plays later or the next game. I try to hurt people.”

“I try to hurt people” is the kind of thing we would expect to hear from the residents of Sedom, the wicked city whose destruction is described in our parsha. We are told that in Sedom women were routinely abused and men were sodomized (etymology from Sedom). And yet, it is not this abusive behavior but a different behavior, one that seems entirely reasonable, that our Rabbis criticize and label midas Sedom, the behavior of Sedom.

In civil law, there are circumstances where one person gains and the other does not lose – ze nehene, v’ze lo chaser. For example, if a person is driving to a wedding and someone asks for a ride, the passenger gains a ride and saves on the gas and tolls, while the driver loses nothing as he was going anyway. The Talmud gives the example of two brothers who inherit a field from their father. One of the brothers already owns the adjacent field and requests the portion of the inheritance that abuts his field. He stands to gain, while his brother will not lose by accommodating him.

In such situations of ze nehene v’ze lo chaser, if the one who does not stand to lose nevertheless denies the other person the benefit they seek, they are described by the Talmud and later the Shulchan Aruch as exhibiting middas Sedom, the character or quality of a member of Sedom. Why does refusing to be gracious qualify as Sedom behavior? How can it compare to abuse and sodomy to the extent that our Rabbis could associate it with Sedom?

I suggest that not accommodating someone when it costs you nothing is not in fact benign or pareve, but is in reality cruel and ruthless. If you have an opportunity to help someone and it will cost you time, money, energy, political capital, social standing or anything else, it is understandable to hesitate and perhaps to even say no. However, if all else is equal and you refuse to accommodate someone though it has zero impact on you, such behavior is downright cruel.

We listen to James Harrison say, “I try to hurt people,” or hear Warren Sapp say he almost threw up when he saw a player helping another and we think we have nothing in common with them or their attitude. When we learn of the behavior of the people of Sedom, we think we would never live in such a place or associate with such people. And yet, middas Sedom is not only exhibited when we do something actively cruel, but also when we are passively cruel and heartless by not doing something that could be helpful or beneficial, especially in circumstances where it would have absolutely no impact on us whatsoever.

Kindness, compassion, helping and supporting others should not be extraordinary or outstanding behavior. Rather, they should be our default reaction to a person in need, unless there is some major reason not to get involved.

Earlier this week, 90–year-old Arnold Abbott was cited by police for feeding the homeless on a beach in Ft. Lauderdale. In October, the City of Fort Lauderdale Commission passed an ordinance that banned organizations from distributing food outdoors in public spaces. Every Wednesday for the past 23 years, Abbott and his non-profit organization, Love Thy Neighbor, have been feeding the homeless on the same beach. This Wednesday was no different, except that this time he was approached by police officers. “One of the police officers said, ‘Drop that plate right now,’ as if I were carrying a weapon,” Abbott said.  He will get his court subpoena in the mail and a judge will decide if he will spend up to sixty days in jail and be fined $500.

Mayor Jack Seiler defended the ordinance. “It’s a public safety issue. It’s a public health issue. The experts have all said that if you’re going to feed them to get them from breakfast to lunch to dinner, all you’re doing is enabling that cycle of homelessness. They don’t interact with anyone; they don’t receive the aid that they need.”

Abbott insists he will not stop feeding the homeless. He says it is cruel to see hungry people with nothing to eat and not offer them something.

One cannot consider the ordinance middas Sedom, cruel and ruthless behavior, in light of the Mayor’s explanation that the law is designed for the benefit and long-term welfare of the homeless. Moreover, halacha teaches dina d’malchusa dina, the laws of the land when not in contradiction to Torah are binding and must be observed.

If Abbott and those who agree with him feel strongly that the homeless deserve immediate support and food and that Ft. Lauderdale should find another way of encouraging the homeless to seek a shelter or use government services, then they should work within the system to change the ordinance. Until then, they should invite the homeless to eat in locations and venues that are within the law.

Though perhaps executed in the wrong place, Arnold Abbott’s compassionate instinct is admirable and commendable. Not only would he never “try to hurt people,” his natural inclination is to intercede on behalf of those people who are hungry and hurting. We should be inspired by him to practice greater kindness, compassion and concern for others.

Our goal should be the same as in baseball – to make sure that everybody, especially the homeless, are simply safe at home.

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