“Ultimately, the aim of karate is to make us better people.In karate, we seek constant improvement.We always aspire to be a bit better than we were the time before… that’s why karate doesn’t have a rank of 10th Dan… the search for perfection is like walking towards the horizon…”
A group of sweating children standing before me.Kicking, blocking, punching, shouting… They have heard these words repeatedly from me. Sometimes I thought that they did not understand what I wanted from their young souls.After all, they came to karate practice just to learn how to fight… or so I assumed.
Ten years later. Palmachim Air Force Base.The end of a training course for an elite unit in the Israeli Air Force. One of those units that bear the heavy responsibility of defending the narrow skies of the State of Israel.
Two weeks earlier I had received an unexpected text message from O., a smiling blond 22-year-old from Hoshaya. I had been privileged to teach O. karate for 10 years, during which time he had excelled and had even become a karate assistant-instructor himself.O.’s text message read: “Sagi, as our course comes to an end we have been asked to invite people who have been influential in our lives to a special evening at Palmachim. Would you be able to come?”
It was scheduled for the evening before I flew to the USA, so the timing was not exactly ideal, but how could I refuse such an invitation?!
I arrived at the Air Force Base with my son Ari, who will soon be drafted into the IDF. Every graduate of the course had invited someone who had influenced his life. In total we numbered some twenty “influencers,” one of whom was a Holocaust survivor and the grandfather of a graduate. In a meeting with Brigadier General S., the base commander, we were all very moved as we listened to the grandfather describe in a quavering voice the direct line from the Nazi death camps, which he had barely survived, to his grandson, who was about to serve at the vanguard of a proud, confident Jewish army.
At the reception (chocolate truffles on an army base?! Only in the Air Force!) we met Major M., O.’s direct commanding officer. I asked Major M. what characterized O. He answered, “Throughout the entire course, O. sought perfection… he always tried to be a bit better than he had been the time before… the principle that guided him during exercises was that of constant improvement…”
I listened to the commander’s description with a broad smile of pride and satisfaction on my face. Major M. did not understand why I smile. But O. himself understood my proud beam very well. He explained to his commander: “That’s exactly what I heard Sagi say, over and over again, for almost ten years when he was teaching me karate. The seeds he planned in us during karate practice are bearing fruit now, in the army.”
I asked the Major to repeat his words and videotaped it to show O.’s parents, who had encouraged, supported and helped him with every step he took along his path. And to myself I said in thanksgiving: “Indeed, these are blessed seeds. Happy is the people whose sons are such as these!”
Sagi Melamed is Vice President of External Relations and Development at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College, President of the Harvard Club of Israel and author of “Fundraising”. Sagi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This essay first appeared in The Canadian Jewish News.