Ki Tisa

Ki Tisa 5764 — Hockey and the Evil Inclination

  Can you imagine what an amazing experience it would have been to stand at Mt. Sinai when God’s presence was right there? When Moses went up the mountain to receive the Torah? From the description in the Torah, it would have been a truly awe-inspiring experience. Everyone there was brought to a very high spiritual level as they were in the presence of God revealing the Torah.

Which makes what happens in this week’s Torah portion all the more surprising. The people experience God’s presence in thunder and lightning. Moses goes up the mountain, covered with smoke and fire, to receive the Torah. He’s gone a day longer than the people expected, and they go and do the greatest possible sin: they seem to reject God and build a Golden Calf, they engage in idol worship. The Jewish commentators, the rabbis, have been particularly amazed and troubled by this. How could the people possibly have gone from such a high level to such a low level so quickly? Overnight?

Many Vancouver Canucks fans are asking themselves much the same question. How could 29-year-old Todd Bertuzzi, arguably the best power forward in the NHL, a key ingredient in Vancouver’s Stanley Cup hopes, have viciously sucker punched Steve Moore of Colorado Avalanche? Why would a truly great hockey player do something so low as to sneak up behind someone and deck him, full force, when the guy wasn’t even looking? In a split-second, Bertuzzi went from being a hero to being a loser. His ugly action landed Moore in the hospital with severe injuries, landed himself a suspension for the rest of the season, and seriously hurt Vancouver’s chances to win the Cup.

The Talmud tells us “the greater the man the greater his evil inclination (Sukkah 52b).” While this may help explain how the generation at Mt. Sinai could have done what they did—and how Bertuzzi could have done what he did—it does not let him off the hook. A great person may have a stronger yetzer hara, a stronger evil inclination, than the average person, but he is also responsible to keep his evil inclination in check, even if it is more difficult than it is for normal people.

Bertuzzi failed to control his evil inclination, and he now has to suffer the consequences. And what of those consequences? What does the Jewish tradition say would be appropriate punishment for Bertuzzi?

Moore is not going to play again this season because of his injuries. Bertuzzi has been suspended for at least the rest of this season. Bertuzzi’s punishment of being out of hockey for the same amount of time as Moore may sound in keeping with the Biblical injunction, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a break for a break,” but it’s not. If we were going to stick with a somewhat literal interpretation of that verse from parsha Mishpatim, Moore should break a few of Bertuzzi’s vertebrae as well. Thank God, that’s not how the Jewish tradition understands this rule.

In the Talmud (Bava Kamma 83b) we are told that someone who injures another person must pay him for five things: for depreciation, pain, healing, loss of time from work, and degradation. One rabbi objects, and says why pay compensation? Doesn’t the Torah say “an eye for an eye?” The response is, what would you do if a blind man put out the eye of someone else, or a cripple cut off someone’s hand? How can you carry out the retaliation? The Torah also says “there will be one law for you,” meaning the law is applied the same to everyone, and you couldn’t do that here. Therefore, “an eye for an eye” is understood to mean financial compensation. If you poke out someone else’s eye, you owe them an eye’s worth of compensation.

There are really three values being expressed in this passage. The first is that you are responsible for fixing any damage you do to someone else. You injure someone, you have to make them whole. These five things enumerated in the Talmud are also generally the things a person is responsible for if he injures someone else under secular law. The second value we can take from “an eye for an eye” is that punishment should be proportional to the injury. It’s an eye for an eye, not an eye and hand. The punishment should fit the crime. And the third principle is that everyone should be treated the same under the law.

If we apply these principles to the Bertuzzi case, we can see that his suspension does seem to be proportionate to his offence. Having his suspension run as long as Moore is unable to play seems in keeping with the spirit of “an eye for an eye.” But it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Bertuzzi clearly should also be responsible to pay Moore damages. If he was a mensch, he wouldn’t wait for Moore to sue him, he would offer to reimburse him for any medical expenses that aren’t covered by insurance, and for any financial loss he’s going to suffer from not being able to play the rest of this season. It sounds like Moore is expected to make a complete recovery—if not, Bertuzzi should also have to pay for the loss in future earnings.

A poll of Canucks fans showed that there were a significant number who thought that Bertuzzi’s penalty was already pretty harsh. But if justice is truly to be served, it’s not yet harsh enough. Consider, we’ve already discussed the principle of “mishpat echad yiyeh l’chem,” there will be one form of law for you, everyone should get similar treatment. There is also a principle which says “dina d’malkhuta dina,” the law of the land is the law. Look at what Bertuzzi did from the perspective not just of the NHL, but from the perspective of society. If I were to sneak up behind someone after Kiddush and deck them with a punch to the head (remember, I’m a black belt!), resulting in serious injury, I would certainly be charged by the police with a crime—some variety of assault, exactly which depends on how badly the person was injured. Considering Steve Moore’s injuries, if Bertuzzi had done the same thing on the street in front of a cop, he probably would be charged with aggravated assault which is a very serious charge, generally resulting in jail time. Should a hockey rink somehow be a place where the law of the land doesn’t apply? What if, God forbid, Moore had died from his injuries? Is it any less manslaughter if it happens at GM Place on live TV?

There are those who would argue that Steve Moore had it coming to him for the hit he made on Canuck’s captain Marcus Naslund on February 16. Naslund was out for three games with a concussion, and Moore was not penalized on the play. To people who would advance that argument, I would say, “wake up! We’re not in the Wild West.” We don’t take justice into our own hands. Can you imagine the chaos that would result if everyone who didn’t like what a court—or a referee—did decided to take matters into their own hand? The Talmud tells us that it is forbidden to steal something from a thief to recover the value of what he took from you, because to do so will give you a taste for stealing. We need to distance ourselves from improper behavior.

The NHL found the Canucks guilty of participating in improper behavior. In responding to questions about the $250,000 fine imposed on the Canucks, General Manager Brian Burke said “”The incident happens and people say it was premeditated. I think if you have hockey sense and focus on this, rule No. 1 is you’re not going to send your second best forward after a guy. You’re not. You don’t want him to break a knuckle in a fight, and you don’t want him to get suspended. There are other players and that’s their job…” There are other players and that is their job? To sucker punch players from the other side and put them on the disabled list? If that’s true hockey has much bigger problems than this one incident.

Our tradition says that the way to set things right is to do teshuva. Which means repairing the damage done as best as possible, and then asking the other person for forgiveness. Bertuzzi did issue an apology. But he phrased his apology a little evasively. He said “Steve I just want to apologize for what happened out there.” I’m sorry for what happened out there—as if it were some kind of accident, and not an intentional attack without warning. How about “I’m sorry for what I did, I don’t know what I was thinking?” Not only that, but more than apology, teshuva means asking the injured party for forgiveness.

And after the damage has been repaired, and forgiveness has been asked for and given, God also forgives, and life goes on, and hockey goes on, with hopefully everyone involved wiser and more committed to playing hockey than starting fights.

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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