Greater Washington Coalition for Jewish Life

Rabbi’s Monthly Message

September, 2023

Dear Coalition Community,

I hope that this summer has been kind to each of you and that you are looking forward to a meaningful and holy holy day season. For many Americans, the fall is about the changing of the leaves and the turning of seasons. For some, though, it is a welcome return to football season. I happen to be one of those Americans whose heart jumps at the word “Touchdown!” And yet, I often have complex feelings as I read stories of NFL players being arrested, and finding little or no consequence to their actions which are often quite public and, at times, violent.

As many of you know, I went to seminary in Philadelphia and became a Philadelphia Eagles fan during my time there. For those who don’t remember, or who don’t follow sports, Michael Vick was an NFL quarterback – one of the elite quarterbacks in the league. At one point, he was actually the highest paid player in all of professional football. However, while I was at seminary in Philadelphia, his career came tumbling down when it was revealed that he had been running and financing a dog-fighting ring. He was arrested, convicted and sentenced to 2 years in Federal prison. Fast forward to his release – Vick is released from custody in July, and in August, signed a multi-million dollar, 2-year contract to play football again – in Philadelphia! Animal rights activists and many others were troubled by his ability to play again – and in doing so act as a role model for so many young people – given his criminal past. At a recent Shabbat service I was discussing this trend of football players who are convicted of a crime but continue to play professionally or in college. When asked about what I thought of this reality, I shared about this idea of a spiritual accounting:

Elul, the Jewish month preceding the High Holidays, is a time of reflecting, of checking in with ourselves and seeing how the year went. Most importantly, it is a time to perform heshbon hanefesh, or an accounting of our souls. The rabbis teach us that true teshuvah (repentance) can only occur when we turn away from the action so that, in future instances, we take a different path rather than repeat the same old sins. We acknowledge that we make mistakes in life and we also recognize the power to make positive change in our lives. If a person is truly repentant and has performed this act of heshbon hanefesh, then s/he enters into Yom Kippur with a clean slate, free from all of the past transgressions. Thus, if we perform this act justly and righteously, Yom Kippur should be a day of joy as opposed to one of great sorrow and mourning.

To be sure, this is not always the case, but I want to use Michael Vick as one example, because it was so prevalent in my mind. Vick’s first months free from federal custody were spent with seemingly an accounting of his soul. He attended events with the ASPCA, rallied with others on behalf of animal rights and worked with children to teach them the lessons of his own life. At a press conference in Philadelphia announcing his signing with the Eagles, he shed tears as he spoke of the cruelty he inflicted upon the dogs he owned and taught to kill. He recalled crying each night in prison as he thought of the harm he had committed in this world. He also spoke quite plainly about the cost of his transgression; his profession was taken from him and he declared bankruptcy with over $20 million in debts.

But the question remains in my mind even after all these years, was the accounting of his soul complete? Did Vick enter his new career, just as we enter our new Jewish year, with a clean slate? I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone besides Vick himself can ever truly know the answer to that question. What I would say, however, is that he was given an opportunity to perform the teshuvah he so desperately needed – both to account for his soul and to revive his career. For each of us, who live our lives with far more anonymity than a NFL quarterback, his public declaration might serve as a powerful inspiration for our own work this season. And, perhaps our atonement looks quite different. But I can’t help, even after all these years, to think of that moment at the start of the football season. It brought home for me the importance of a public atonement, which is a core part of the high holy day liturgy, in our teshuvah process.

Whether you like your football on Saturdays or Sundays, or not at all, I believe there is a meaningful lesson to be learned. As we prepare for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I invite you to take your own accounting of your soul. What have you done this year that you would like to have back? What brings you to tears as you think of your own transgressions? Most importantly, how can you plan to make this coming year different than the last?

Jen, Talyah, Kol, and I wish each of you a shanah tovah, a good year and a meaningful holiday season. I look forward to seeing you on September 15th as we welcome in the New Year of 5784 together in joy and happiness, and with clean slates all around.

Kol Tuv (Be Well),


Rabbi James