To Act or Not To Act? That is the Question

To Act or Not To Act? That is the Question

First of all, welcome to all the new people who are now following this blog! All of your comments were so thoughtful and insightful, so thank you for taking the time to think and to write. You’ve all definitely given me some food for thought!

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming…

This Sunday, over 100 million people will be sitting around their TVs watching the Super Bowl. And at least once during the game, at least 98 million of them will scream, “Come on, ref — what are you, blind?!”

But while we may want to yell at referees for ignoring (seemingly) obvious calls, what’s really interesting is that we would actually get much more angry at a referee for being over-zealous. After all, we don’t want the refs determining the game — we want the players determining the game. So when a referee seems to act too overtly, and potentially alters the results of the game, it’s very hard for us to overlook that. Quite simply, “sins of commission” are much more difficult for us to forgive than “sins of omission.”

In fact, in their new book Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports are Played and Games are Won, authors Tobias Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim explain that what really drives people nuts isn’t whether or not the ref gets a call right. It’s about whether or not the ref appears to have actively affected the outcome of the game.

The finals of the Women’s US Open in 2009 between Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters really highlighted this fact. This was the situation: Williams had lost the first set, and was down 5-6 in the second. With Williams serving, it was 15-30 when the lineswoman, Shino Tsurubuchi, called a foot fault, which docked Williams a point, leading to match point for Clijsters. Williams went ballistic, and yelled at Tsurubuchi, which then caused her to be docked a second point — and this point cost her the entire match.

The audience was furious (you can hear the boos in the video), and so even though Tsurubuchi had made the right call, the fans were so enraged that she had to be escorted from the court for her own safety. (Moskowitz and Wertheim, 26-29)

It’s one thing to see the correct call; it’s a whole other thing to have the courage to actually make it. And this is an issue we face, as well. When we have to take an action that is correct and appropriate — but also potentially difficult and controversial — are we brave enough to take it? Indeed, at moments like this, we are faced with a dilemma — to act or not to act? That is the question.

Well, our natural reaction is often not to act. We’re scared to have committed a “sin of commission,” because that is so much worse  than a “sin of omission.” But in contrast to focusing on what may simply be easier or less scary to us, Judaism urges us to act — even if that might push us outside of our comfort zone.

Jewish tradition, for example, commands us that we have to actively pursue two things — peace and justice. “If a person sits in his own place and does nothing, how can he pursue peace between people? So let him go from his own place and move around in the world and pursue peace. as it is said, ‘Seek peace and pursue it.‘ (Proverbs 34:14). What does that mean? Seek it in your own place, and pursue it to another place.” (Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar in Avot deRabbi Nathan 12) And in Deuteronomy 16:20, it says, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” That same word, “pursue,” appears there as well, implying that we can’t just sit idly by — we have to be proactive in creating a more just and more peaceful world.

So yes, it can be daunting to act, because it means that we will sometimes make mistakes. But we also know that if we sit on the sidelines, nothing will ever change. It is only through direct action that we can repair our world.

Taking action can be hard. But when it comes to creating a world filled with peace and justice, I think Nike said it best: Just Do It.


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