“Home where my thought’s escaping, Home where my music’s playing, Home where my love lies waiting Silently for me.” -Paul Simon, Homeward Bound
Do you know who Thiago Braz da Silva is? Didn’t think so.
He won the Gold Medal in the pole vault at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. When he started competing as an adult in 2013, he didn’t do too well in the World Championships, the annual competition which is the run-up to the Olympics. “Too well” is being nice. Between 2013 and 2016 he placed 4th once, and then languished between 12th and 19th for the rest.
So how did he win the Gold Medal? Hint: Thiago is Brazilian.
Simply put, he won because he was home.
Being home confers incredible advantages upon us. One advantage, which seems counter-intuitive, is that by connecting with our own little spot in the world, we do better in the wide world.
Pole vaulting has no place in Brazilian culture, but being at home in Brazil made Thiago a better pole vaulter. There is some strange but powerful chemical reaction by which our parochial selves improves our universal selves.
It’s not just Thiago.
Statistical studies show that in every major American professional sport – football, baseball, basketball, hockey and soccer – teams have a significantly higher winning percentage when they play at home.
The home field advantage is real.
Passover is our home. It’s where we go tap into our Jewish roots to renew ourselves — as Jews and as humans. The draw of our Passover home is irresistible. That’s why the vast majority of American Jews, regardless of their level of Jewish commitment, go to a seder. And, in an incredible twist on the idea of going home, you don’t have to be in your actual house.
How many of you feel the need to go to a seder even if it’s not in your house? This is Passover’s (and Judaism’s) unique genius: home is not just a place, it’s an idea. That’s why every year the largest seder in the world is in Kathmandu. Why? Because nearly 1,500 young Israelis, who take the now customary post-army year off backpacking through Asia, have to go home — their seder home.
We resist the pull of our Jewish home at our peril. Maybe pole vaulting isn’t your life’s dream. But whatever it is, the Jew you are will help make you the person you want to be.
I’ve always thought that this principle explains Steven Spielberg’s record at Academy Awards. Only one of his movies won Best Picture. How can that be? True, one reason is that so many of his movies have characters who have fewer than five fingers on their hands. But there are also important and serious films such as Empire of the Sun, The Color Purple, Lincoln and Saving Private Ryan. But none of these won. His only film to win Best Picture is Schindler’s List. Could be that it was only when Spielberg dug deep into his Jewish self that he did his best work? Maybe he went home — and came out ready for his Gold Medal.
But resist, we do. We want to be cosmopolitan. We want to be part of the world. We scurry around Facebook, certain we’ll find some universal truth if we just give in to FOMO* and connect to everything. But here’s the truth: When you start at the universal, you often end up at the lowest common denominator. That’s not necessarily bad, but only if bland is your life’s goal. It’s when you dive deep into the insular part of who you are that you reach a beauty that is universal. Imagine if every artist were forced to paint by a universal standard and not use his own internal understanding of art. We would never have Monet’s lyrical water lilies, Van Gogh’s eerily mystical Starry Night or Da Vinci’s what-kind-of-crazy-smile-is-that Mona Lisa. These can only come when you start with a particular vision. Start with the universal, and all you get is Dogs Playing Poker.
Along comes Passover and beckons us to our home — Judaism’s particular vision of how life should be lived. And what a powerful and meaningful vision it is.
You can read 100 books on philosophy and ethics and never understand the proper way to deal with the “Other” better than when you dip your finger into your wine, pouring some out when you recite the Ten Plagues. We do this because even though the Egyptians were our enemies, and deserved the plagues, we recognize the pain they felt. That’s morality taught at a visceral level.
How many academics and thinkers have written books about how the pursuit of knowledge is best achieved? Skip the books and go to your Seder. We start with the Four Questions, because Judaism teaches us the (universal) lesson that truth can only come from questioning. These are just two examples of the complexity and sophistication that is Passover. We Jews are fortunate to have such a beautiful home – a home that gives us the incredible opportunity to delve deeply into meaning, beauty — and ourselves.
When you sit at your seder, remember: Only by going deep can you go far.
Co-Authored by David Abramowitz, Executive Director of the Jewish Leadership Institute