Now that the Great Holy Days are over, I am studying a new âsacredâ text.
I’m talking about the award-winning Apple TV Plus series, “Ted Lasso”.
Ted Lasso (Jason Sudeikis) is a Midwestern college football coach who is recruited to coach AFC Richmond, a British football team. Except, of course, that British football is football.
Ted’s acclimatization to his new geographic location, new job, and changing family situation is funny, poignant, and wise at the same time.
Ted is always ready with Lasso Torah pieces. My favorite: âLimbo. Great board game; poor relationship status.
What can rabbis – and other members of the clergy – learn from Ted Lasso?
Ted Lasso comes from elsewhere. Like most rabbis and clergy. In my experience, most of the clergy did not grow up in the communities they serve.
Like the founders of the Western religion – Abram and Sarai, who make their first appearance in this week’s Torah portion. They come from elsewhere. They come from across the river. They are Hebrews / Ivrim – the people on the other side, the strangers, the Other.
Perhaps that is what makes the clergy effective – that they come from elsewhere. An older colleague once described his rabbinate as âa quarter pastor; a quarter of a teacher; a managerial quarter; and a quarter of guest anthropologist.
This last element of the invisible job description can be a blessing, as it prompts the clergy to be openly curious about what they are going through and then to interpret that experience.
It’s also a curse, or a slight curse, because obviously you have to learn the culture. It’s always a learning curve. Depending on geography, sociology, and one’s own instincts, this task can take time and energy – and it often comes with mistakes and a bunch of missteps.
Believe me. I was there, I did that.
Ted Lasso is unfazed. Ted is clearly overwhelmed by his new situation. His personal style – Midwestern, folk, aw shucks – clashes with his new surroundings. This earned Ted the unseemly British nickname âwankerâ. (Look for him).
In one episode, Ted appears at a local school and a child yells, âWanker!
Unfazed, Ted introduces the team’s captain, Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein), and the children greet him enthusiastically. The contrast with the reception for Ted is palpable.
If this annoys Ted, he doesn’t show it. In this sense, he demonstrates what Jewish mysticism calls tzimtsum – the ability to contract in oneself and let others have the power.
Or, if you like, the words of the Talmud:
Our Rabbis taught: those who are persecuted and do not in turn persecute; those who listen to contemptuous insults and do not respond; those who act out of love and rejoice in sufferings – on this subject Scripture says: “Those who love God are like the sun rising in his strength” (Judges 5:31)
The clergy receive a lot of criticism. Sometimes that criticism turns into something like abuse – often from well-meaning people who just don’t know how to best articulate their needs. (To my knowledge, no one called me a âwanker.â At least, not to my face.)
It takes moral courage and inner clarity to swallow it; to say “it only seems to concern me, but something deeper is going on” – and not to “hit back”.
Ted Lasso is clear about his mission, even if it means being unpopular. In the first season, Ted benched the popular and narcissistic Jamie Tartt. That didn’t make him particularly liked.
It didn’t matter to Ted. He was able to keep an eye on the ball (literally and figuratively). Ted showed the team that they could win, even without Jamie’s efforts.
Ted’s one word credo is: Believe. Without some basic kind of emuna – faith, belief, security, value system – you just can’t be in the game. Whatever game it is.
Ted Lasso embraces his own vulnerabilities. Season 2 spoiler here: Ted has panic attacks. He confronts his demons (with the help of a therapist); takes care of his own broken-up family and learns to accept the fact that a supposed friend revealed him to a local newspaper.
The literary power of the Ted Lasso series is that each of the main characters embarks on a journey of vulnerability – Ted, Rebecca, Jaimie and Roy.
It wasn’t just that Ted wanted to maintain that stiff British upper lip that he had to absorb. It was because he wanted to stay focused on the team and not on himself.
Likewise with the clergy. If you think sharing your vulnerabilities will help others, go ahead, wisely and sparingly.
Because Ted knew from the start that it wasn’t about him.
Conclusion: Ted Lasso is a coach. His job: to get the players to work together, hopefully to win a few games – but most of all, to be the best versions of themselves.
It is an interesting way of seeing our vocation. We have a multi-level team – professional colleagues; a board; the congregation. Like all coaches, we can hope that the teams under our tutelage will use their gifts to the best of their ability. We know when we can push them and when the extra effort will strain them.
The sport metaphor could be even more powerful than we imagined.
In a midrash, we read:
The words of the wise are like a young girl’s ball. As a ball is thrown to the hand without falling, so Moses received the Torah at Sinai and delivered it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, the elders to the prophets, and the prophets delivered it to the Great Synagogue.
This is how the ancient rabbis imagined the great chain of tradition, which went from generation to generation: like a ball which is thrown, in a playful way, from the teacher to the pupil.
Look at Ted Lasso. You are going to laugh. But, as the series develops, you’ll end up with a little tear in the corner of your eye.
It is this tear that the clergy know so well.