The Super Bowl – the most globally watched annual event – has finally arrived, along with all the hype, excitement and hilarious TV ads that it brings. A game where two privileged teams battle for arguably the most coveted prize in the world of sports: the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
A quick survey of past Super Bowls reveals one perennial theme: the underdog. From the ’69 New York Jets to the 2010 New Orleans Saints, we have relished in seeing the underdog pull off a stirring upset. Research bears out that the underdog is a magnet, attracting fans who anxiously hope that the underdog will do the impossible and overcome its mighty foe.
Even this year, a recent headline proclaimed: “Steelers Embrace Underdog Status in Super Bowl.”
What is the secret of the underdog? What are they offering us that the better opponent doesn't have?
The answer touches on the meaning of greatness, and its relevance to each of us.
At the core, every human being yearns to overcome obstacles. We understand that true greatness can only be experienced in accomplishing that which is difficult – in conquering that which we thought was unconquerable. One needs only to live up to the challenge.
When it comes to the underdog, we recognize the unique opportunity for greatness. Since the mountain to be climbed is higher, there is more potential for greatness. Whether David defeating Goliath, or Lance Armstrong overcoming cancer, underdog stories universally inspire.
And yet, in one fundamental way, Judaism diverges from the Super Bowl.
Judaism teaches that life is more than just hoping to vicariously enjoy the thrill that “this year’s underdog” might experience. On a deeper level, we all crave this same victory in facing our own personal challenges, to be the one who, when faced with an insurmountable difficult, triumphs over challenge.
So how can we – who will never throw a touchdown pass in front of a packed stadium crowd – assume that underdog role ourselves?
True strength and greatness, the Talmud says, is claimed by "he who conquers himself" (Ethics of the Fathers 4:1). When you hold back from eating the extra piece of chocolate cake, that is greatness. When you return the extra change at the supermarket, that is greatness.
Material pleasures sparkle in a way that a moral choice does not.
In a certain sense, the deck is stacked against us. The lure of material pleasures sparkles in a way that a moral choice does not. But by digging deep down to find that spark of strength, that determined will to push upward, then with God’s help, against all odds we can conquer. At that moment we become the victorious underdog sporting a championship ring.
At any given moment we have a mountain to climb, a struggle to beat, a challenge to accomplish. It isn't a physical mountain, but an internal one. The soul is the underdog, battling against our basest bodily drives. We have to fight the battle of our souls and experience the excitement and pleasure of beating the most difficult opponent in the world – our negative inclinations.
So whether you're trying to quit smoking or trying to control a bad temper, picture yourself as the team trying to beat the odds and win the greatest championship in the world. Yes, there is a stadium full of family and friends – plus the Almighty Himself – rooting for you. Except this time it isn't the Super Bowl, it's even greater: The goal of perfecting oneself – of becoming the greatest “you” that you can be.