Being from Chicago, I am a big fan of the Blackhawks, who just won the Stanley Cup in one of the best NHL championship series. In so many ways, hockey is like a religion. It is filled with laws and superstitions, both for the fans and the players.
There is a hockey “minhag” (a custom) that has become universally accepted since its inception by the New York Islanders in the 1980s. The custom is that from the beginning of the playoffs until they are either eliminated or win the Stanley Cup, players do not shave their beards. Many fans also do not shave in solidarity.
Interestingly enough, the end of the hockey playoffs this year perfectly coincided with the Jewish observance called the Three Weeks, which are the three sad weeks between the two fast days of Shiva Assar B’Tamuz and Tisha B’Av. One of the major customs of the Three Weeks is, guess what? You got it! Not to shave your beard. The bottom line is that by the end of this (Tisha B’Av), I’m going to look like Chewbacca, who by the way would have been a great hockey player.
Don’t worry, this all relates to our parsha, which describes all the various campsites along the 40-year journey taken by the Children of Israel to reach the Promised Land — Eretz Yisrael.
What is the purpose of the Torah recording all the stops along the journey to the Promised Land, 42 in all?
Sforno (15th-century Italy) answers beautifully that “God wanted to show that it was in the merit of all those years of wandering from place to place through a barren desert, following God faithfully, that they merited entering The Land.” In other words, Sforno is saying that when we contemplate the journeys and challenges of the 40 years, we will appreciate that Israel is the result of dedication, suffering and faith.
The NHL playoffs are completely brutal. They last about two months. That’s two months of peak- level intensity, but they pale next to the challenge of wandering for 40 years in a wasteland. If you think about it, the 40 years wandering in the desert is really nothing in comparison with the last 2,000 years of wandering our people have survived since the Roman destruction of the Second Temple. Through expulsions, pogroms, exterminations and abuse, our people have trudged on with a collective will to survive and flourish.
To me, this is the meaning of the custom to grow a beard during the Three Weeks.
Just like the players in the NHL who can make it through two grueling months by keeping their eyes focused on the prize, represented by letting their beards grow and not worrying about appearances, so too, for almost 2,000 years we Jews have let our beards grow during this three-week period in order to remember our past and keep our eyes focused on the ultimate prize of redemption.
Sforno would say that one day our survival and faith through all of the journeys and travails of the last 2,000 years will be the cause of our redemption. Until then, I’ll let my beard grow.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro is spiritual leader at Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah.