R' Yoni Lavie
Let’s admit this once and for all. Sports are not our greatest realm of achievement! We have indeed won the most Nobel Prizes, we invented the theory of relativity and the USB flash drive, we have the best air force in the world, and we gave the world the Ten Commandments as a heritage. But in terms of sporting events, we are hardly worthy of a passing grade. And the events of the past few weeks in Rio de Janeiro simply prove this point.
What is really surprising is that this is always a big surprise for us. Every four years, the Chosen Nation fills itself with an expectation that this time all of humanity will discover who we really are not only in terms of the mind but also in terms of physical prowess. All we want is to hear our anthem, “Hatikvah,” played with pride when we are awarded a medal. But every time we are disappointed then we see that our jumper was close to the mark but from underneath, and that the swimmer wearing a blue and white cap almost drowned in the deep water at the pool.
That’s the way it is, folks! The time has come for us to recognize the truth. The great message of our nation to the world seems to be in the realm of rising to great intellectual heights and not the broad-jump. We can contribute much more to uplifting the human spirit than to throwing an opponent to the mat in a wrestling match. There is no need to apologize, we have nothing to be ashamed of.
Who is in Favor of Sports?
What is the Jewish attitude towards sports? Eight hundred and fifty years ago, the Rambam gave a very encouraging statement about this matter: “Since a healthy and perfect body is one of the ways of G-d, it is not possible for a person to understand or know anything about the Creator while in a state of illness. Therefore a person must keep away from what is detrimental to the body and behave in a way that maintains the health and enhances the strength.” [Hilchot Dei’ot 4:1]. This seems to imply that sports and strengthening the body are part of the service of G-d.
Does this have any connection to the Olympics? The answer is a resounding no! There is no connection at all! The great benefit of sports is when the person himself does it! When he stretches his bones and exercises his own muscles.
However, when millions of people stretch out on easy chairs with a bowl of snacks and some cola while they sit there watching a few professionals make supreme efforts on the television screens – it may be a satisfactory form of entertainment, but any connection between this and a healthy body is pure coincidence. Just the opposite is true. The passive observers become more and more rusty, and the energetic participants wear out their bodies and their spirits, sometimes while causing long-term harm to themselves or while using dangerous drugs. And it’s all in order to get one of the medals!
To Win by Half a Second
This week a friend of mine shared with me an experience that has accompanied him ever since the merry days of grammar school. It was the time of the Olympics, and one of the runners set a new record by shaving half a second off the previous world record. All the pupils were very excited, and they spoke with great agitation about the new record. The only adult around, the teacher, saw their excitement and asked to know what was going on. The pupils explained, with great patience, “Teacher, yesterday the Olympic runner beat the previous world record by half a second!!!” The teacher looked at the class thoughtfully for a moment, and then he asked: “And now please tell me: what did he accomplish in that half a second?”
Suddenly, the class fell silent, and then after a moment they all broke out in laughter. “Teacher, don’t you understand? He finished the race half a second sooner than the old world record!!”
The teacher replied, “I get all that. You are telling me that this runner trained for twenty years, and spent many years of his life just to be able to run the distance in half a second less time than ever before. Okay, he made it – he arrived half a second faster than ever before. I am simply asking: What he did with that extra half a second that he gained?”
At the time, the pupils made fun of the teacher. In their hearts, they thought, “What does this old man understand about sports and the importance of a new world record?” Only years later, when the pupils had grown up and gained some living experience of their own, did they begin to understand the great wisdom of that teacher’s reaction. To put it simply, he wanted to give them a feeling of the significance of time and to emphasize for them the priorities by which we behave and live. People sometimes expend tremendous efforts for a goal that has no real benefit, while they ignore wonderful realms of their lives, which might be deep and spiritually meaningful. They might never think about such matters at all, because they will be too busy trying to pass somebody else and beat him by half a second.
Break your Own Record
In spite of all the criticism, we still must put in a good word for the grandiose event in Rio de Janeiro.
First of all, it is very refreshing to see nations fight against each other not with rifles and artillery shells but on racetracks or in swimming pools. It is especially nice to see how at the end of the competition the two sides hug each other or shake hands. Look at this as a miniscule promo for the vision of the end of days, as predicted by the prophets: “No nation will lift up a sword against another, and they will no longer study war” [Yeshayahu 2:4].
Secondly, this does indeed teach us the value of labor and effort. Every one of the participants in the Olympics worked very hard for a very long time in order to get to this status. In a world where “labor” and “effort” have almost become crude notions, and “sweating” is something that happens only when the air conditioner is broken, it is good to encounter people who really put in an effort in order to achieve some desired goal. These people are willing to dedicate their lives to something that is important to them, even if it takes more of an effort than a double click or downloading a cellphone app. This is an unparalleled message to the modern world, which has become addicted to physical comforts.
And one more point before we end. The motto of the Olympics is, “Faster, higher, stronger.” This embodies the desire to reach further than before and to break the previous record. This is a very worthy cause, but it is vital to define the goal in a precise way: The main point is not to pass others and to be better than they are. The main objective is to remain in constant motion, for every person to break his or her own previous record. Whoever lives in this way will be truly worthy of wearing a gold medal after his or her stay in our world.