Don't Be Like JaMarcus
Return Double Time
Based on his college career JaMarcus Russell seemed destined to be the next star NFL quarterback. He excelled for three years at perennial college football powerhouse LSU where he led the team to an SEC championship, multiple prestigious bowl games, and many awards. With prodigious size and a wickedly strong arm, scouts and NFL teams were enamored with Russell.
In the 2007 NFL draft, he was taken first overall by the Oakland Raiders. Holding out while awaiting his first contract should’ve been the first sign, but it wasn’t until he began playing that his career really fell off. It lasted a paltry three years and these were his statistics: 18 TDs, 23 INTs, 4,083 passing yards, and a 65.2 QB rating. That is not good.
So how does that happen? Someone with all the measurables you’d want, immense career success, and physical prowess falls right off a cliff. It’s hard to imagine there’s a physical reason although him showing up at 290 pounds to training camp one year surely didn’t help. It had to be mental.
One of the more famous stories about Russell involved the team testing to see if he was actually putting in the work. They sent him home with game film to watch but it contained nothing. Wanting to see if he would actually watch it, Russell came in the next day confidently talking about all the prep work he had done watching the video. At that point, the Raiders knew it was over.
You can rise to the highest highs but once you get there, you’ve got to stay grounded. Or else, you risk flopping hard. That is an age-old lesson that’s found in an unlikely place.
This week, the Jewish community marked the 9th of Av, a somber day in the Jewish calendar where we grieve the destruction of both temples in Jerusalem along with a laundry list of calamities in Jewish history. We read the book of Eicha-Lamentations which is a deeply powerful and painful retelling of the fall of Jerusalem.
As it ends, like all books of Tanach, we can’t end on a sad note so the tradition is to reread the penultimate verse of the book once again to cap it off (5:21):
הֲשִׁיבֵ֨נוּ יְהֹוָ֤ה ׀ אֵלֶ֙יךָ֙ (ונשוב) [וְֽנָשׁ֔וּבָה] חַדֵּ֥שׁ יָמֵ֖ינוּ כְּקֶֽדֶם׃
Take us back, God, to Yourself,
And let us come back;
Renew our days as of old!
This verse is utilized often in liturgical and musical settings as it speaks to a longing that so many of us have. We’re in pain now and we want to go back to the days of yore, when things were better. We’re adrift. Let us find our way back to you.
It kept gnawing at me this week. Why does the verse need to use a doubling of the concept of return? It feels like one would’ve sufficed. “Take us back and renew our days” reads quite nicely.
Scouring the commentaries, I came across this piece from the Bat Ayin that helped explain it1:
ה בפסוק (איכה ה כא) השיבנו ה' אליך ונשובה, כשאדם מתבונן בשכלו לפני מי הוא עומד ולפני מי הוא עתיד ליתן דין וחשבון… בודאי תשובה כזו מקובלת לפניו ית"ש, וצריך כל איש ישראל להאמין בזה אשר בזאת יכופר עונו… אמנם כשיעשה תשובה עד"ז יוכל לבא לבחינת גסות הרוח ח"ו, בחשבו שהוא מנוקה מכל עון, וילכד בגסות הרוח מחמת שבטוח שנתכפרו עונותיו והוא נקי וזך מפשעיו, וצריך תשובה על זה גם כן
There are two “returns” because there are two aspects of Teshuvah2. The first is when a person understands fully before Whom they stand and before Whom they will one day come before.3 This type of return is certainly accepted before the Holy One. Every person needs to believe that this can be successful for them…However, when a person reaches this level, there is a worry that they will then become arrogant thinking they’ve been fully cleansed of their transgressions. They’ll walk around thinking they can’t be touched4 It is for this that we need the 2nd “return” in the verse
In other words, the two uses of “return” are necessary. A person might get a bit big for their britches after they’ve successfully done the work. Once you’ve reached that level, your head gets big, you think you’re done, and then the haughtiness kicks in. “I won the award;" I got the job;” “I’m him.5"
That’s where the Bat Ayin gets worried. He’s probably right. We all know that feeling. When we’ve reached the pinnacle of something, sometimes we want to take the extra lap for adoration. It feels nice, and it is nice. But we also have to temper it.
We have to remember that there’s always more work to be done. Just because we’ve achieved some success doesn’t mean we can rest on our laurels. We see it too much around us.
It’s not to say we shouldn’t celebrate our wins. There’s certainly room for that. It’s all about finding that middle ground between pride and arrogance.
As we come once more out of this period of solemnity and grieving, I hope that we all can find our victories. In doing so, I also hope we can find the ways to return to our grounded selves, to the paths that got us there. When we achieve that, we can ensure we don’t fall prey to that which caused JaMarcus to be one of the greatest flops in sports history.
Happy Weekend and Shabbat Shalom!
Rav Avraham Dov Auerbach of Avritch, a student of the Meor Eynayim and the Kedushat Levi-18th Century
The notion of returning to our best self that we’ll see plenty of come High Holiday season)
He goes on to say here in this space, you have a full accounting of all the goodness you’ve brought to the world and all the missteps you’ve made.
My rabbinically licensed translation
As the kids say