Friday Night Lights (2004), directed by Peter Berg

friday night lights posterMany years ago, I met a teacher from a prestigious private high school in Atlanta, who shared with me his approach to class management. He told me that he tells his students that he has only two rules: do your best and do not hurt other people. It was an “aha” moment for me, for it made me think about simplifying my teaching style. Perhaps instead of stressing compliance with rules, I would reasonably request that everyone do their best and that they not hurt other people. In specific terms, students should not prevent me from teaching or prevent other students from learning.

Once I adopted these rules, I informed my classes that the source of these rules was the Bible, which states that man is created in God’s image. If everybody is a reflection of the Divine, then everyone deserves respect. Practically speaking, this meant that students would have to listen to other students and not interrupt them, and that students would not disturb the lessons with conversation while I was teaching. Compliance with these basic rules would insure that I would have a “perfect” class. A variation of this kind of divinely-inspired discipline permeates the sports program at Permian High School in Odessa, Texas, in 1988, the setting of Friday Night Lights, the story of one tumultuous year in a high school football program.

The football season starts with promise as “Boobie” Miles, the star player runs through the opponent’s defenses with reckless abandon. But success is short-lived when Boobie sustains a season-ending injury. Coach Gary Gaines now has to rely on his quiet, less flamboyant players to win games. Chief among them are Mike Winchell, the quarterback who needs to play with consistency to win games, fullback Don Billingsley, who has a rocky relationship with his fault-finding father, third-string running back Chris Comer, who fears getting hurt, and safety Brian Chavez, who is brainy, but lacks natural football savvy.

After some initial losses, Permian begins to win regularly. The possibility of playing in the State Championship Final looms larger with each win. The team coalesces in spirit as the season progresses and makes it to the championship game facing a much more physical team from Dallas.

Down by over two touchdowns at the half, Coach Gaines gives a half-time speech for the ages, in which he defines “being perfect.” His coaching mantra has been “be perfect,” and now he explains what it means: “Being perfect is not about that scoreboard out there. It’s not about winning. It’s about you and your relationship with yourself, your family and your friends. Being perfect is about being able to look your friends in the eye and know that you didn’t let them down because you told them the truth. And that truth is you did everything you could. There wasn’t one more thing you could’ve done. Can you live in that moment as best you can, with clear eyes, and love in your heart, with joy in your heart? If you can do that gentleman – you’re perfect.” He continues: “I want you to take a moment, and I want you to look each other in the eyes. I want you to put each other in your hearts forever because forever is about to happen here in just a few minutes. Boys, my heart is full. My heart is full.” It is a speech that brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it because of its emotional power and because it resonates to my Jewish soul.

Jewish tradition also encourages us to aim for perfection. How do we define it? There is a classic Chassidic story about Zusha, a great Sage, who was weeping on his deathbed. His students asked him why he was so sad, to which he responded that when he arrives at Heaven, God will not ask him why he did not achieve as much as Moses, but rather why he did not fulfill his potential as Zusha.

The Talmud encourages us to be as great as Moses, but the reality is that we cannot be as great as he. We cannot be perfect. But we do have a responsibility to be the best that we can be given our talents and unique circumstances. Friday Night Lights reminds us to do our absolute best. A supreme effort in this world may open up the gates to the next.

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