Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Olympic Lessons

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Anyone following the news this past week and viewing any of the various media outlets couldn’t miss the headlines about the 2008 Olympics taking place in Beijing, China.

Following the ancient traditions of Yavan, Greece, top athletes at the Olympics compete for the coveted medals that will bring glory to themselves and their native countries, and transform the winners into national heroes. Those who come in second and third - silver and bronze medalists - have the status of also-rans, and woe to anyone who scores lower than third place. These hapless hopefuls slide quickly into obscurity.

Interestingly, the hero of the Olympics this year won one of his races by a hundredth of a second. Yes, you read that right. He made history because his finger touched the finish line a mere 1/100 of a second before his rival. For that dubious victory, he is hailed as the greatest athlete in history.

This man reports that his life is reduced to doing little else besides sleeping, eating and swimming. Despite that astonishingly empty regimen, he had to do nothing more than beat his competitor by 1/100th of a second to instantly qualify as the hero of a nation.

Is someone who wins by an infinitesimal, inconsequential measure really that much better than the person who came in three whole seconds later and finished number seven?

Of course not. Such a minute difference means that any variable could have changed the outcome. But according to the rules of the game, the person who pulls out ahead earns the accolade of victor and the one who doesn’t carries the stigma of a loser.

Why should such a small disparity make all the difference between triumph and defeat? To answer that question, let’s analyze what goes into the internal makeup of a champion.

One who is driven to excel possesses a different kind of drive than the average person. Determined to be the best at what he does, he finds a way to triumph. He finds a way to go that extra mile. He finds a way to beat the record, even if it is only by a mere second - or millisecond.

The champion is the one who is ready to surrender whatever he is doing or everything that he has in the pursuit of his goal. The winner is the one who picks himself up when he falls and goes back to his training until he reaches perfection. He doesn’t say that it can’t be done. He doesn’t say that it isn’t fair. Instead, he tries again and again until he has what it takes to win.

Someone who is determined to win takes lessons from all that transpires around him, including the accomplishments of strangers or people outside his sphere. He who looks to constantly improve himself practices the dictum of Chazal of, “Eizehu chochom? Halomeid mikol adam.” He reviews his studies one hundred and one times, and is satisfied that he knows it well enough after studying the same material one hundred times.

We know that we were not created so that we can swim 1/100th of a second faster than the fellow in the next lane. But what are we really supposed to be doing with our time, and where should we be dedicating our energies?

Let us take the time to learn this week’s parsha with Rashi and other meforshim so that we can find out. In Parshas Eikev (10:12), the Torah asks and answers the immortal question: “And now, what does Hashem, your G-d, ask of you? Only to fear Hashem, to follow in His ways, and to love Him and to serve Hashem with all your heart and all your soul.”

The Gemara in Brachos (32b) asks whether it is such a small thing to fear Hashem that the posuk singles it out as the only thing demanded of us. The Gemara answers that for Moshe Rabbeinu (for whom fear of Heaven was as natural as breathing), it was indeed a small thing.
But that doesn’t really answer the question. If it was no big feat for Moshe Rabbeinu to have the proper yiras Shomayim, it is still a challenge of some magnitude for most of us.

The Vilna Gaon explains that if we attach ourselves to a great tzaddik such as Moshe, yiras Shomayim would be easier to achieve. In fact, in this week’s parsha (10:20), the Torah states, “You shall fear Hashem, your G-d; you shall worship Him and cling to him.” Also in this week’s parsha (11:22), the Torah says again, “You should walk in the path of Hashem and cling to him.” Chazal explain that the way to “cling” to Hashem is by becoming close to tzaddikim and talmidei chachomim.

The Vilna Gaon in Mishlei (28:12) writes that although there are few tzaddikim among us in this world, and often they are hidden, we are obligated to find them.
In order to be great, we have to hang around great people. In order to achieve superiority, we must have real heroes whom we can look up to and emulate. In order to excel, we need people who teach us by word, example and deed, and, when necessary, admonish us and set us straight. Searching, discerning people find a tzaddik to attach themselves to, while those who aren’t serious about spiritual growth mock tzaddikim and distance themselves from them.

The true seeker and ultimate champion will take seriously the oft-quoted posuk in this week’s parsha, “Kochi ve’otzem yodi asah li es hachayil hazeh.” But many of us fall into the trap of wishful thinking, imagining that whatever good fortune befalls us is due to our own superior talent and ability.

We forget that we must be thankful for everything we have and realize that it is a Divine gift. To the extent that we recognize Hashem’s beneficence, we are blessed with more.

So often, we portray ourselves dishonestly and think we can get away with it. In order to come out ahead, we stoop to artificial posturing, choosing political correctness over honesty and sincerity. We think we are being convincing, but people tend to judge others by more than their words. Most people can smell artifice and manipulation faster than one would think.

The true candidate for heroism will not turn a blind eye when he sees evil being perpetrated. He doesn’t stand by and say, “It is not my problem; let someone else worry about it.” Not for him inaction and passivity. He knows evil is evil and wrong is wrong, and does his utmost to oppose it. He calls a spade a spade. He cannot permit people who harm others to operate in impunity, certain that no one will have the guts to stop them.

We live in a time when everyone’s secrets can easily become public property. We have to be cognizant of that and be especially careful to safeguard ourselves from being the cause of chillul Hashem. We have to go the extra mile to ensure that we behave with rectitude and not gloss over our moral responsibilities. When people speak falsehoods in our name, engage in flagrantly improper behavior, and commit destructive actions, we have to muster the courage to speak out publicly and make it clear that they do not represent us. Regardless of whether they happen to be powerful and influential or hapless kooks, our duty is the same.

When we read the pesukim of Parshas Eikev, we feel as if Moshe Rabbeinu is pleading with the Jewish people the way we would plead with someone we deeply care about and are attempting to influence to accept reality. In fact, it’s not hard to imagine that Moshe is pleading not only with our ancestors in the dor hamidbar but with all successive Jewish generations - with you and me, too.

He reminds the people of all they have been through, of all the miracles G-d produced in order to bring them to where they are. He begs them to remember who has fed, clothed and cared for them, even as they remained ungrateful. He reminds them how stubborn and spiteful they were, and how he repeatedly interceded on their behalf.

He warns them not to delude themselves as to why Hashem has been kind to them and why they have experienced success. He reminds them that all Hashem asks for in return is that they have yiras Shomayim.

Read the pesukim (8:11 and on): “Be careful lest you shall forget Hashem… Lest you eat and become full and build nice, good fancy homes and become settled… Lest you have much gold and silver and become haughty and forget Hashem, your G-d, who took you out of Mitzrayim and led you through the Midbar where he quenched your thirst and fed you. Yet you say in your heart, I did this all myself with my own strength!

“Remember it is Hashem who gives you strength to wage war … If you will forget Hashem and go after strange gods and you will serve them and bow to them, I warn you that you will be destroyed…”

These pesukim are not just written to people of the dor hamidbor who clearly went astray. They are written to us as well, and should serve as a reminder to us that we should never let our gaavah get the better of us and fool us into thinking that we are self-sufficient, that we are smart and strong enough to take care of ourselves.

We have to discipline ourselves so that we don’t find ourselves in the same boat as people who are so chained by their egos and are no longer capable of absorbing the truth. They remain blinded by their hubris to facts that are plainly evident to everyone else. The truth can be staring them in the face, but their resistance to anything that challenges their prejudiced notions prevents them from recognizing it.

This pitfall faces each one of us in different ways as we go through life. If we are successful, we grow fat and comfortable, falling prey to the tendency to convince ourselves that it is our superior intelligence and immeasurable talent that enabled us to reach the pinnacle of success. As long as the going is good, we fail to appreciate our limitations. Despite ample evidence of our frailties, we cling to a naïve belief in our invincibility.

It takes a big fall for us to be forced to admit the obvious. By then, it is usually too late and we have turned off too many people with our arrogance and disloyalty. We can no longer count on their friendship and mercy. We played hard to get much longer than we should have. We were deaf to our friend’s entreaties and good advice. We didn’t have to listen to anyone. Rules were made for everyone else, not for us.

Then, one day, it all comes crashing down on us and there is no one around - or concerned enough - to help us pick up the pieces.

We must always remember where we come from and where we are headed. We must be constantly aware that it is Hashem who provides us with the know-how and stamina to earn our livelihood and get ahead in this world, and to survive life’s inevitable trials and setbacks.
Let us keep our eyes on the ultimate goal and not stumble and fail. We may look at the Olympics as a colossal waste of everyone’s time. But we can learn from the contestants the lesson of never giving up, of disciplining and training ourselves for years to accomplish a goal.

We can learn from them how to strive for excellence, push ourselves to the utmost, and give our all to the task, not giving excuses when we fall short. Let us resolve instead to counter failure with renewed effort, squeezing out one more ounce of talent, time and resourcefulness than we thought we possessed.

The real “gold medal” goes to those who live honest, upstanding lives marked by unstinting effort to mold themselves into the best that they can be. As the pesukim at the end of the parsha promise (11:22), “If you will observe the mitzvos, love Hashem and follow in his path…then Hashem will let you inherit nations that are larger and stronger than yours… Wherever you will set your foot down will be blessed… No one will be able to stand in your way.”


Post a Comment

<< Home