Even for those who don't follow sports, it was difficult not to hear about the Boston Red Sox's stunning American League Championship victory over the New York Yankees last week.
Entering the series, the Yankees had it all -- the history, the talent, and the attitude -- to put down the pesky Sox. And indeed, the Yankees racked up three straight wins and had the Sox by the throat, three outs from elimination.
But then, the most expensive sports team ever assembled -- with a payroll of $184 million -- suddenly became the victim of the most total, historic, unprecedented collapse of one of the greatest dynasties in sports.
The most expensive sports team ever assembled suddenly became the victim of the most unprecedented collapse in sports.
After the Yankees won the first three games, the Sox became the first team in baseball history to force a seventh game after losing the first three. And then the story became unbelievable: In the decisive Game 7, the Red Sox romped, 10-3, to complete four straight wins and earn the pennant.
What does all this mean in the greater scheme of things? I don't think God cares too much about who wins the World Series. But there can be spiritual lessons that arise from sports, as the following Torah insight, applied to the Yankees-Red Sox series, will perhaps show.
ABHORING THE YANKEES
I admit it. I have always disliked the Yankees. I grew up in New York as a diehard Mets fan. And in New York, it's one or the other. If you like the Yankees, you hate the Mets, and if you like the Mets you detest the Yankees.
I never gave much thought as to why I disliked the Yankees so much as a kid -- until recently. I think it's the arrogance issue. While the Mets were rarely a winning team, the Yankees seemed to always be winning the World Series. It almost felt as if the Yankees were the goliaths, the big bully on the block, while the Mets were the scrawny kids getting sand kicked in their face. And when I grew up, left New York, and met people from around the U.S., it seemed to me that if you weren't a Yankees fan, you almost universally disliked the Yankees.
Why is this so?
To me, the Yankees represent egotism and arrogance. They have won dozens of World Series titles. They always seem to get the best players by shelling out the most money, and then psyche out the other team with their mystique.
Just when a person begins feeling invincible, God pulls the carpet out from under him.
God doesn't like conceit and arrogance. This is one of the worst character traits, as the verse says, "An exalted heart is an abomination to God" (Proverbs 16:5). God has a special method of cutting down arrogance: He first raises that individual to prominence and success -- but just when the person begins feeling invincible, God pulls the carpet out from under him.
And the higher a person is, the harder he falls. As the Book of Esther relates, God did this to Haman by making him prime minister of the Persian empire, and subsequently directing events which lead to Haman's hard downfall. (Midrash - Esther Rabba 7:1-2)
The same concept is stated in the Prophets (Ovadia 1:4), "If you raise yourself like an eagle, and if you place your nest between the stars, from there I will lower you down, says God."
It's no coincidence that Moses, the greatest of all time, is described by the Torah as the humblest person who ever lived.
ANTIDOTE TO ARROGANCE
So the Yankees were up 3-0 in the series. They were acting arrogantly as if the Red Sox defeat was a fait accompli. But then before they knew what hit them, they became the laughingstock of professional sports. They experienced a hard and shocking fall such as no team had ever experienced. The Yankees had been raised up to the highest point possible without actually winning the series, and then the arrogant Yankees were exposed and vanquished -- the first team in history to 'choke' in a way that no other team had ever done.
The lesson for us is clear. We must never become arrogant and smug. About anything. Avoiding egotism is a lifelong struggle and we must always be on guard.
Whenever you accomplish something, distinguish between "pride" and "pleasure."
How can we avoid arrogance? One method is to constantly attribute our successes to God. There is a positive feeling that comes with accomplishment -- and rightly so. But Rabbi Noah Weinberg says: Whenever you accomplish something, distinguish between "pride" and "pleasure."
Pride means: "I did it. This makes me better than other people."
Pleasure means: "Thank God I was given this opportunity to enjoy and to accomplish. I am not better, just fortunate."
When we realize that we only triumph and flourish when God desires it, we will never become smug. Rather, instead of taking personal credit for our accomplishments, we must be grateful to God for all these gifts, and pray that we will continue to merit His blessings.
So even if it seems that people around us succeed despite their arrogance, we must always realize that all this is part of God's plan, and eventually the conceited will experience a deep and treacherous fall.
Even on the baseball field.