In this week’s Torah portion, Metzora, we learn about the laws that were given pertaining to a “Tzaraat,” or someone who has acquired skin or hair blemishes that were possibly caused by malice or gossip. Last week, we learned that they must leave the community to heal. This week, our Parsha describes the process necessary to heal oneself of those blemishes and reentrance into the community. We learn that the priest would go out to visit and inspect the person to make sure that they were fully healed. If the person was fully healed, the priest would make a sacrifice with two clean, living birds. One bird was killed with a spiritual ritual, but the other bird was set free into the open country. Birds play an important part in the rituals of this Parsha, which leads me to a discussion about another spiritual bird that plays a large role in my own personal life….the Kansas Jayhawk.

For those who may not be into sports, this past Monday night the Kansas Jayhawks (my alma mater) pulled off the largest comeback in NCAA Championship history to defeat the North Carolina Tarheels. Our mascot, the Jayhawk, is a mythical spiritual bird symbolizing roots going back to the Civil War.

Whenever I share with people outside of the Midwest that I grew up in Kansas, they reference The Wizard of Oz and ask me if I know Toto. This even happened to me once in a taxi in Israel with a driver who did not speak any English. Connecting this back to the Parsha, every so often our college basketball team does something so incredible on the national college basketball stage, that it is as if our “Kansas Jayhawk” was set into the open country and suddenly people recognize us again.

I’ll admit that connecting this Parsha with my elation for the Jayhawks championship is not easy, but I want to take a moment to share my reflections about our win and how it made me feel connected with my Kansas community and the Jewish community at large. The second we won the game, I was face-timing with my family. Despite almost being midnight, I reconnected with my Jewish friends from AEPi and spoke with former Jewish professional mentors at KU who helped me become the Jewish educator that I am today. I received texts and Facebook posts from many of our congregants and teachers. Perhaps my favorite text conversations were with Rabbi Cohen and Cathy, who also share a passion for Kansas basketball. While not everyone who messaged me was a Kansas fan, receiving texts of congratulations and knowing that others were so happy for me was a true reflection of community.

This week, all in one article, I have taken us from skin blemishes to bird sacrifices to the joys of the Kansas Jayhawks winning a National Championship! The theme connecting all of this is community. I would like to leave everyone with one final lesson and challenge. This week, I reconnected with people that I hadn’t spoken to in forever. We started by congratulating one another on the National Championship (as if we had played in the game) and then we caught up about what is happening in each others’ lives. I would like to challenge all of you, whether Kansas fans or not, to call someone you haven’t connected with in a long time just to say hello and catch up. It’s a great feeling and something we don’t take the time to do quite enough. Also, as a Kansas Jayhawk superfan who hasn’t stopped smiling for days, may we all take the time to smile every day – championship or not.

Shabbat Shalom and Rock Chalk,

Matt Rissien