DAY 1454: What the Cavaliers NBA Championship Teaches Us About Empathy

June 23, 2016
By bethmordecai
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DAY 1454: What the Cavaliers NBA Championship Teaches Us About Empathy

Reflection on the Cleveland Cavaliers winning the NBA Championship and our upcoming Shabbat by the Sea experience on Caring for One Another…

Dear Hevreh,

I confess that I was very excited when the Cleveland Cavaliers (“Cavs”) won the NBA championship on Father’s Day. Why is this something I have to confess to? Because I’m not a Cavs fan, I’m a Sixers fan. More to the point, I’m a Philadelphia sports fan and it surprised me that cheering for the Cavaliers to win on Sunday night felt somewhat like cheering on one of my Philly teams win. It was odd, because a part of me thought that I should not feel that way, that no team winning a championship could (or should) feel as significant as my team winning one. It felt a little like I was betraying my own kin, but I could not deny that there was a familiar feeling in watching Cleveland’s experience of winning a championship that made me want to root for them, a feeling that I can only describe as empathy.

Back in 2008, my beloved Phillies won the World Series which ended a drought of twenty-five years without one of Philadelphia’s four major professional sports teams winning a championship. I was only 1 year old when Moses Malone and Dr. J beat the Lakers in 1983 and as a diehard Philly sports fan, this drought felt interminable, painful, and heartbreaking. Wandering through the desert of championship-less seasons felt like nothing no other fan of any other city could experience. We even had a name for it – the Curse of William Penn. It was a burden that only a Philly sports fan could understand. Consequently, the Phillies victory in 2008 was one of the most incredible feelings I ever experienced – elation, joy, surprise, even a touch of the spiritual. It felt as if our wandering was over and we finally arrived at our promised land.

I believe it was this experience, that helped me feel empathy towards Cleveland, a city with a fifty-four year sports drought (though they have one less professional team). In watching Cleveland follow their team so passionately, I recognized that their burden was similar to Philly’s burden. It wasn’t the same, but it was similar as if we both wandered through the desert never imagining that we would be able to reach the promised land. And when Cleveland improbably reached their promised land on Father’s Day, I confess that it felt a little like Philly reached ours again.

Yet despite these similarities, it is important for me to remember that their desert was not my desert, that their promised land was not exactly like mine. Empathy does not teach us to think that we know exactly what others feel like, or that they know exactly what we feel like in our struggles. The differences in all of our struggles – whether it’s related to our favorite sports teams, our health, or our professional or personal lives – are just as important as the similarities because they remind us that there’s no simple path forward, that there is mystery in how we persevere and triumph over our struggles. Yet while we go along our unique journeys through our own deserts, empathy helps us to know that there’s “somebody by our side” who went through a similar journey and can accompany us on our own journeys, cheering each other on to be victorious and reach our promised lands.

May we continually be willing to cheer on each other during our unique, personal journeys through life.

Kol Tuv,

Rabbi Ari Saks

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