By Rabbi Philip Graubart
I’d like to admit something that will no doubt cause me some embarrassment and will certainly offend my family and many of my old friends from Cleveland: I admire Tim Tebow. (If you’d like to know why Clevelanders automatically despise anyone who plays for the Denver Broncos, ask the next Clevelander you meet). The rap against Tebow is that he talks about God too much. San Diego sportswriters point out that our own Philip Rivers is just as religious as Tebow, but he doesn’t rub our faces in it, doesn’t toss the ‘J’ word at every interviewer. Critics also heap scorn on Tebow’s pre-game prayers. Does he really think God cares who wins a football game? A colleague of mine (from Cleveland, naturally) recently wrote a blistering column comparing Tebow to Osama Bin Laden and other tyrants who were sure “they had God on their side.”
It often astonishes me how supposedly sophisticated people misunderstand what religious folk do when they pray. I haven’t spoken to Tebow personally, but other successful athletes have told me they pray to stay healthy, or not to hurt someone else, and mostly that they make the best use of their talent. Tebow himself talks about how his talent — along with his drive and leadership skills — flows not from his ego, but from God. The idea that our finest qualities come from God is, in fact, the opposite of boasting. “It’s God, not me,” is a statement of humility. Tebow may be arrogant, but his faith doesn’t generate the arrogance. On the contrary, faith tempers it. Many professional athletes — a fairly religious bunch — come from poor circumstances, and they often credit God, not their hard work, or their abilities, for their dramatic rise from poverty.
The biblical character most like Tim Tebow is Joseph. Like Tebow, Joseph can’t stop talking about God. But it’s interesting to see where God pops up in his conversation. Whenever Joseph finds himself in the darkest, most degrading circumstances — in the pit, as a slave, in jail — the Torah tells us God was with him. Joseph also attributes his most notable talent, dream interpretation, to God. “Not me, God!” he tells Pharaoh, when the Egyptian king demands he interpret his dreams. “Interpretations come from God,” he tells the butler and baker, in prison. We later learn that Joseph senses God’s presence in the complex narrative arc of his life. “It wasn’t you who sent me here,” he tells his brothers. “It was God.”
So what? What does all this God talk do for Joseph? Why should we admire him, as I admire Tim Tebow? Well for one thing, Joseph’s faith gets him through slavery and prison, and that’s no small thing. It also helps him feed the world, as Egyptian prime minister. But, for me, Joseph’s God consciousness plays the most important role in encouraging him to reconcile with his brothers. When Joseph’s brothers show up in Egypt, Joseph has two choices, two potential narratives. He can tell them, ‘You threw me into a pit; you wanted me dead; you sold me as a slave. I’d sooner feed a dog than feed you.’ Or he can forgive, and say what he did: ‘It wasn’t you, it was God. God brought me here to save lives.’
Joseph articulates here the essential, existential mindset of a believer: significance and meaning. From the time I was born, Joseph implies, God had a plan for me, something noble, redemptive. Joseph senses this weighty consequence — that his life follows a sacred script — always and everywhere: as a child, dreaming; as a slave; as an aristocrat. He understands that to hate his brothers, to wallow in bitterness, disturbs the narrative, alters the script. So he forgives, because he knows that’s what God wants. It’s what God intended all along.
Deep down, many of us also sense that God has plans for us, or that, minimally, our lives mean something beyond the day to day grind. Significance and meaning whisper in our ears. We feel as if we’re following some sacred story. This feeling, when we open our hearts to it, pushes us in the very best directions. It brings love to our lives, and then goodness, generosity and sometimes sterling achievements. Tim Tebow, like Joseph, dares to speak about this feeling and give it a name: religion. I’ll never be a Bronco fan. But good for him.