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Articles > Coach K and the Meaning of Passover

By Rabbi Mitch Smith

It was April 3, 2001, with Passover just a week away. The night before, Duke had won the NCAA Championship, beating Arizona following a semi-final game against Maryland where they had been down 22 points in the first half. Coming a few years after the back-to-back titles in the Christian Laettner-Bobby Hurley-Grant Hill era, this was Duke’s – and Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s – third championship.

Driving to work that morning, I was listening to basketball maven Billy Packer on the radio, and I heard him say something that I took particular note of. What he said was the following: “Now that Coach K has three rings to his name, any other coach looking to establish his own name will have to go through Mike Krzyzewski.”

A simple enough statement, but suddenly I found myself with a new insight regarding the Exodus, and perhaps the entire Torah.

Of course, I said to myself, that’s exactly what Passover is about. To be THE MAN, you’ve got to BEAT the man.

Here was Pharaoh, the most powerful monarch around. He was the Coach K of his day – at least in the fact that anyone wishing to establish his own name would have to go through Pharaoh. Only by defeating Pharaoh could any other person – or figure – establish HIS own dominance. To assert His sovereignty in the universe, it would not be sufficient for the God of Israel to proclaim Himself as such – it was by bringing the greatest power in that universe to his knees that God would unequivocally establish His name.

This is the point of God’s message to Moses when He tells him: “Go before Pharoah and tell him: thus says the Lord God of the Hebrews: “Let my people go… for I will send my plagues into your midst and among the people, that you may know that there is none like Me in all the earth… I shall show you my power that My name may be declared throughout all the earth.” (Exodus 9:12-17).

It was not so much the liberation of the Israelites from slavery that is at the center of the Exodus and the events we recall at Passover – it is that God redeemed our people (at least in the way our ancestors pictured it to be) with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. The Exodus marked God’s appearance on the stage of human history.

To be sure, one victory does not a champion make, (consider the many miracles performed by the Almighty that we recall when we recite Dayenu in the seder), but when 28-year-old Trevor Immelman won the Masters recently, the fact that he beat 4-time Master’s winner and golfing legend Tiger Woods in the process made the moment all the more meaningful. When the Red Sox beat the Yankees in Pennant play to go on and win the World Series, it was THAT victory over their historic rivals that established the Bosox not only as the winners that year, but as a team of note.

Perhaps the sport analogy only carries so far, but the point is that there are figures who set the standard for others. Coach K has been such a figure. So have Tiger, and Roger Federer (and Dean Smith and Jack Nicklaus and Pete Sampras before them).

The Final Four, the Masters and the World Series are events for our time. The Exodus is an event for all times. Passover is a fitting time to recall that the bar has been set for us, a time to be reminded that we were once slaves in Egypt, and that just as victory in sports can only have meaning when all compete on a level playing field, freedom can only have meaning when all people are free.

Best wishes for a sweet and happy Passover!

Rabbi Mitch Smith is the director of the Center for Sport and Jewish Life (www.csjl.org) and the Director of Sport Psychology Services at Florida Atlantic University.

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