We’re deep into football season. One of the usually uneventful times of a football game is when the team on offence fails to make a first down, is too far to attempt a field goal, and punts the ball into the opponent’s territory. Avid spectators reserve such plays for going to the fridge to replenish the Coke (read, “beer”) and chips. However, in professional football today, there is one punter, Johnny Hekker, who is a game-changer and a contender to win the Most Valuable Player award, an honor generally bestowed on running backs and quarterbacks. In this case, the die-hards stay pinned to their couches until commercial time to see Johnny Hekker punt.
Since entering the N.F.L. in 2012, Johnny Hekker, 27, has come to dominate as a punter like few others. He confounds opponents by marrying distance, direction and hang time to smash records, last year compiling what is regarded as the best punting season in N.F.L. history. He broke his own mark for net average, with 46.0 yards per kick, and dropped 51 punts inside the 20-yard line with only one touchback. Beyond his punting witchcraft, which all but neutralizes the opposition’s return game, Hekker is a former high school quarterback whose passing ability has emboldened his coaches to call fakes at any time, from anywhere on the field.
“I would like to think I’m a top-10 guy in the league,” Hekker said, “but really I have a lot more work to do.” During the spring, Hekker grew disgusted when he reviewed all 98 of his punts from last season and determined that many did not land where he wanted them. Again, this was the best punting season in history. Rams’ special-teams coach, John Fassel, said Hekker has yet to peak, which only reinforces Rams General Manager Les Snead’s claim that he might be the best punter ever.
That claim is not drenched in hyperbole. John Turney, a prominent football historian, is working on a project about punting, and he said Hekker, three times a first-team All-Pro, has produced a statistically overpowering trail that places him on a trajectory to join Ray Guy as the only full-time punters in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. For the influence that Hekker wields on a game, his capacity for maximizing field position, diminishing scoring probabilities and running a fake, Turney considers Hekker the best special-teams player in the league.
“Take football out of it,” Snead said. “Johnny does his job as well as whoever just won the Nobel Prize in economics, you know what I mean? That economist might make more of an impact for more people on the planet, but Johnny does his job as good as those people do. It just happens to be punting.” (Nytimes.com, Ben Shpigel, The N.F.L.’s Most Valuable Player Might Be … a Punter, November 2, 2017)
Johnny Hekker works hard to excel at the attributes with which he was endowed. Despite his accomplishments, he doesn’t get headstrong and learns from veterans before him: “They keep me humble. I watch them punt and I think I’ve got a long way to go.”
Mr. Hekker represents a role model that parents might say to their family over dinner, “Now there’s a conscientious young man with good character.” In fact, if such an individual would observe the seven Noachide commandments, assuming he did so because G-d commanded the Nations in the Torah as taught by Moshe Rebeinu, he would be counted among the righteous of the Nations and have a share in the World to Come. (Rambam Hilchos Melachim, 8:11).
So if a Noachide has such a lofty status, what’s the difference between the Nations of the World and Klal Yisroel?
Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner was known to say, “If you had one thing you would tell a Jewish child, what would it be? The blessing over the Torah in the Morning Prayers, ‘Blessed are You, O L-rd, our G-d, King of the world, who chose us from all the Nations, and gave us His Torah.’” The Jewish people were chosen to receive the Torah, the word of G-d.
What is the concept of “chosenness?” The fundamental notion of the Chosen People is expressed in the distinction between “Israel” on the one hand, and the “Nations of the World” on the other. The Talmudic definition of nations other than Israel as “Nations of the World” means to convey the central idea behind the Divine choice of Israel: we were chosen to connect the world to an unworldly elevation, raising the world beyond its earthly level. The pinnacle of this achievement is the Beis HaMikdosh, the Temple in Jerusalem, which forms a spiritual “embassy of G-d” within the physical world.
This is understood from Yaakov’s dream in Parshas Vayeitze by the ladder connecting Heaven and Earth at the future location of the Beis HaMikdosh [Bereishit 28:12]:
“Yaakov dreamt; and behold, a ladder stood on the ground, and its head reached the Heavens. And behold, angels of G-d ascended and descended upon it.”
The Medresh [Bereishit Rabbah 68:12] relates:
Rabbi Chiya and Rabbi Yanai commented: one explained that the angels ascended and descended on the ladder, and the other explained that they ascended and descended on Yaakov … They ascended to the heavens and beheld the image of Yaakov, and they descended to the ground and found him asleep.
What does this represent? Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin [Nefesh HaChaim 1:5, (in the footnote)] writes:
The person who is complete is planted in Worlds Above, in the source of his soul, and passes through thousands of spiritual domains, until the lower part of his soul enters the physical body. This is the meaning of the verse “For the portion of G-d is His nation, Yaakov is the rope of His inheritance” – his elevated soul is “a portion of G-d,” from which he descends like a rope until he reaches the physical body. Every physical deed therefore has the power to make an impact at the elevation of the source, like a rope, whose upper end moves when its lower end is shaken.
The nation of Israel is named after Yaakov, the third and most perfected Patriarch, who was renamed Israel. Just as Yaakov united two worlds, the spiritual world above and our physical world, so the continued role of Israel is to unite two worlds.
Rabbi Reuven Leuchter contrasts the goals of Israel and the Nations as follows:
The focus of non-Jewish life is earthly existence, incorporating a broad range of norms all geared toward the ordering and taking full advantage of the world on a “two-dimensional” plane. The Seven Noachide Commandments all reflect this idea: they relate to life within the set boundaries of physical existence, within an autonomous world that knows only two dimensions.
The Sages thus term non-Jewish nations “Nations of the World.” They are essentially “of the world.”
Jewish life, by way of contrast, revolves around a third dimension, a plane of existence that connects the physical world with a higher, Divine existence. Unlike the Nations of the World, the deeds with which Israel is charged are therefore little understood by their human perpetrators – for they pertain to a Divine sphere that is “not of the world.”
It is this that the Jewish people are chosen for: for making a heaven-earth connection, for imbuing the world with a spiritual light, and for bringing the Shechinah to reside among mankind.
The Nations themselves recognize the invaluable contribution of the Jewish people to the world:
We owe to the Jews … a system of ethics which, even if it were entirely separated from the supernatural, would be incomparably the most precious possession of mankind, worth in fact the fruits of all other wisdom and learning put together. On that system and by that faith there has been built out of the wreck of the Roman Empire the whole of our existing civilization. (Winston Churchill, speech given in Jerusalem, 1921, cited in Martin Gilbert, Churchill and the Jews, p. 307)
If some of your students are football fans, offer them pregame inspiration by teaching the NLE Morasha shiur, Jewish Perspectives on Health, Nutrition, Fitness and Extreme Sports.
See also the NLE Morasha shiur, The Chosen People.