Like millions of people across the globe, I’ve spent many hours over the last month watching soccer’s World Cup. Although I’ve always been a big sports fan, I’ve never closely followed soccer until early June.
I don’t think I knew the names of more then 10 professional soccer players. Still, I found myself glued to a screen many times this month, often watching a match between the national teams of two countries with which I had no connection. Now that the tournament is over, I’m surprised by how much I miss it, leading me to wonder why it so strongly held my attention.
One thing that makes the World Cup different from other sporting events is its international significance; in most other sports-loving countries on our planet, the World Cup is THE most important public event.
During the tournament, the World Cup creates a temporary community, united by the simple joys of watching adults from your country and others kick a ball around a stadium. Throughout the month, wherever I watched the matches, I felt connected to people all across the world who shared the feeling that, for some reason, these games really mattered. I found the act of being a part of that community, experiencing that connection with so many millions of people around the world, to be surprisingly satisfying.
My thought as I write these words is that this sense of worldwide community shouldn’t be unusual. We live in the most internationally connected era in human history, a time when we carry devices in our pockets with which we can instantly communicate with people on the other side of the planet. It has never been easier to connect with others who agree with you about what matters.
However, this era of extraordinary connectivity coincides with a moment when the culture of the industrialized world has become incredibly polarized. Instead of being the things that make us interesting to each other, differences in race, religion, politics, and culture have become chasms between us that we struggle to cross. In this highly stratified society, the shared focus and unity of attention that comes with something like the World Cup has become a regrettably rare experience.
As a sports fan, I appreciate the power of major international sporting events to bring people together. One of the reasons I love sports is the sense of community shared with fellow aficionados.
But as a rabbi, I worry what it says about our culture that we need indulgences like sports to make this happen. One of the defining questions every society needs to ask itself is, “What brings us together?” Ideally, the answer embodies the shared values and noble purposes that are that society’s highest aspirations.
In the Jewish tradition, a primary reason for which people come together is sacred activity; several of our most important prayers, including the memorial prayer for the deceased (the Mourner’s Kaddish), cannot be said without a quorum of 10 Jewish adults (called “minyan,” literally meaning “counting”).
By requiring that we come together for an activity that is fundamental to our people, we ensure that we have regular opportunities for connection and shared common purpose, regardless of the other beliefs of the people with whom we share those experiences.
As the world becomes increasingly stratified, I fear that we are losing the ability to connect with, and to understand, those who don’t share our beliefs or background. We don’t have enough that brings us together, activities that transcend these ideological boundaries we now prize. Sports and prayer may not effectively build connections for everyone, but there are valuable lessons in the ways they each work.
How we create community, how we come together, may be the most important question of our time. Let’s be open to possible solutions, wherever they may come from.