Nomadic Loyalties: LeBron and Abraham

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, October 19, 2018 / 10 Cheshvan 5779 

Last night, the Trailblazers went up against the Los Angeles Lakers to begin the new season. It was a hotly contested and well-played game—at least for the first three quarters. Then the Blazers pulled ahead and stayed there. They were highly motivated. After all, Paul Allen had just died, and the team had an incentive to honor their beloved fallen owner. The Blazers also have a long track record against the Lakers and a history of winning their first game of the season. Winning might have been practically pre-ordained, but it was still earned.

It didn’t hurt, though, that in his first game for the Lakers, LeBron James gave a solid if uninspired performance. For a player of his caliber, one could even be tempted to say he played poorly. But then, he’s only just landed with his new team and it may take more game time for them to gel as a cohesive whole.

There’s something about being new in a place. It takes a while to get settled and learn the figurative lay of the land. Many professional athletes often endure a semi-nomadic existence. Spend a few years in one place, then pack up your tent as you seek greener pastures. This is the week Jews read parshat Lekh L’kha, where Abraham and his entourage do just that.

In Abraham’s case, those greener pastures are spiritual in nature. He has become a monotheist, which set him at odds from his polytheistic culture of origin. It sometimes seems easier to recreate yourself by leaving behind those who knew you as you were. It’s a reason that recovering alcoholics will often sever their old relationships. Some people never want us to change, and they’ll sabotage our efforts at growth by emphasizing that our past defines who we really are.

Abraham, of course, is following God’s explicit command to go forth. Yet the Hebrew of that divine injunction is rife with ambiguity. Lekh L’kha. The Bible could have kept things simple and merely uttered “Go!” Yet the addition of the preposition “l’kha” opens us to a raft of possibilities.

Does it mean “go for yourself,” as in “for your own benefit,” as the medieval French commentator Rashi claims? “Go into yourself” as Rabbi Simcha Bunim would suggest in the 18th century, when there was an emphasis on personal autonomy and authenticity? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his commentary on this verse argues that it means “go by yourself.” If you are committed to live by your personal commitments in a world that will often be hostile to your beliefs, prepare to be lonely.

But is the nomad lonely? In a world before nation states, semi-nomadic peoples such as Abraham brought their culture with them. Society was your tribe. And your tribe was your team. One couldn’t or didn’t switch teams at the end of a season. A careful reading of the Bible shows that Abraham didn’t sally forth on his own, but traveled with his father and his extended entourage.

Some sports fans are like that in our highly mobile society. Even if work opportunities take one across the country, their old loyalties to team endure. At the Moda Center last night, a great many Portlanders were wearing yellow jerseys emblazoned with number 23. LeBron.

Others, meanwhile, go by the adage “where ever you hang your hat, that’s your home.” And some of us are more conflicted, unsure which team is ours in a highly fluid world. I’ve lived in Cleveland, Los Angeles and Portland. Which place gets to claim my loyalties? Though as Shayah said last night, “Dad, it’s clear you wanted Portland to win.” Last night, I was a hat-home sort of guy.

There’s something about this which illuminates our own age. Politics and sports apparently light up the same parts of the brain—tribalism often wins out over considerations. That is why there are scholars who believe that polytheistic societies were more tolerant and less militaristic than monotheistic cultures. When your God is the only god, there’s not much room to live and let live. According to this theory, because polytheistic types were able to accept that there were multiple gods, they had no need to venture out militarily against those who believed otherwise. The polytheist of yesterday was the multiculturalist of today.

For those of us who believe in but one God who loves all, such a theory poses a real challenge to our faith. And there is no doubt that many horrendous acts have been done by those who profess a monotheistic faith. Yet the claim of these scholars is less than convincing. After all, in the same section of the Bible that speaks of Abraham’s one faith, we learn that pagan warlords were hell-bent on acts of carnage and that Abraham was pulled into the battle of the four kings versus the battle of the five kings. Religions may be blamed for war, but at best they can only be considered the proximate cause. The history of the human species is dismally militaristic regardless of the form of religion practiced, or if religion played a role at all. Some part of us hungers for battle.

I suppose that’s the hope of sports. If some part of our nature is wired for nomadic, tribal loyalty, sports seems a relatively safe arena where we can engage in physical and emotional warfare. It fulfills our need to witness acts of valor and spectacle. We are motivated by the self-sacrifice players make and by their feats of prowess.There is a hard-to-replicate excitement found in the arena, where for a few short hours we can be swept up in a common cause. On the playing field, courage and heroism are alive and well, and the interests of the single individual are subsumed for the greater needs of the team. And in an age of dirty tribal politics where our leaders sometimes seem unaccountable for their actions, sports still operates by a moral code. Yes, some players may dope to improve their performance, and referees may not be perfect. Still, they aspire to apply the rules fairly and consistently, regardless of your team.

Our national politics could use an injection of what sports has to offer in.

In pursuit of our higher loyalties,

– Rav D

Elections are coming. If you aren’t a modern tribalist in your politics, then you need to wrestle with how to vote. I’ve attached a selection of voter’s guides for those who are still making up their minds. I want to highlight one in particular, which comes from Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon. EMO, for short, is an organization that has a long connection with Neveh Shalom. While I may not always agree with their suggestions, I deeply appreciate that they explicitly explain the set of values which inform their decisions:

“We affirm the value of love, the respect of all life, and the dignity of every human being … In our public witness we embrace compassion and forgiveness in all relationships, non-violence, and working in constructive and creative ways to make a better world. We commit ourselves to a society in which all persons are free to live together in peace and harmony. We affirm an inclusive community for nurturing the shared life of humankind.”

I suspect that a great many of us would agree with all or most of those values, even while we might have different thoughts as to what policy prescriptions have the best possibility of helping us reach those goals and give expression to those values.

Voter’s Guides



Shabbat Table Talk

  1. Do you have a set of values that guide you in your voting? What are they?
  2. How do you decide if a given ballot measure or candidate will actually achieve your values? Is it enough if the measure or candidate espouses your values? Or do they need a track record to show a likelihood of success?

If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.

In Place of Torah Sparks Commentary This Week