They call me the Rugby Rabbi. I played rugby for the Jewish South African rugby team in the Maccabiah in 1985. If we’d lost the final to Australia in the rugby finals, I don’t think I would ever have gone back to Israel again. That’s how much winning the gold medal meant to me at the time. In South Africa, rugby was a religion, my religion. Australia was one of South Africa’s most bitter sporting rivals and losing to them would have been an eternal embarrassment, which I would have been reminded of any time I went back to Israel.
(I once heard, St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner being interviewed. He said he thinks more about the Superbowl he lost than the one he won).
Winning the gold medal meant that every time I went to Israel after that, I relived the wonderful experience instead of reliving the loss.
In fact, I went back to Israel 6 months later on a student trip (before Birthright days) and a year after that (to be madrich for a student trip) and then 2 ½ years after that for my second Maccabiah and a second gold medal. By that time, I had fallen in love with Israel and was ready to move there and call it home. This was 1989.
By that time too, my rugby career that began when I was 8 years old and continued until I was 25, was mostly over (except for a short stint of playing some of my favorite rugby ever in Madison, Wisconsin in 1990). And so was my fierce competitiveness on the sports field. Fortunately, I had always played on a winning team.
I did in fact move to Israel in May of 1992, partly with the thought of playing for Israel in the 1993 Maccabi Games – for the Israeli team. However, I moved into Ohr Somayach yeshiva, the next stop on my spiritual journey which began after the Maccabiah in 1985. Being close to observing Shabbat at that time, playing rugby was not an option. Rugby, like most sports in Israel was played on Shabbat. I did end up helping to coach the Israeli rugby team.
So I understand the competitive spirit in man very well.
I also understand how we live in a very competitive world.
What I don’t understand, or rather what upset me the most about my time in Israel, and what still upsets me now, is how we as Jews compete against each other.
(Aside: I also don’t understand how we are so fiercely competitive when it comes to professional sports in this country, when most of the players on a particular city’s team are not even from that city, and very possibly will be playing for the opposing team the following year.)
I’m telling you the following story, not to pat myself on the back, but to show you what a difference it makes to not be competitive and to challenge you to do the same.
I was working for TLC of Northbrook at the time, a branch of the Chicago Community Kollel, doing adult outreach in the suburbs. A new organization, the L’Chaim Center was opening up in Deerfield, run by Rabbi David and Ali Begoun. I knew David through his parents who had attended TLC classes. David asked me if I had any names of people who might be interested in coming to his new program. I could have said no. I could have looked at TLC’s success and the L’Chaim Center’s success as a competition. If I win, they lose. If they win, I lose. Instead I gave David my entire list of names and contact information. Today, the L’Chaim Center is one of the most successful outreach organizations in Chicago, doing amazing work. I take very little credit for their success, despite David and Ali’s view to the contrary.
It’s Chanukah. We won the war against the Greeks.
They are no longer here, nor are the other enemies that tried to annihilate us.
Yes, we still have other external enemies today.
And there are subtle forces of assimilation that has taken away so many of our young adults.
So why do we need to fight each other?
Let’s take that competitive spirit inside of us, and compete to be the best Jews we can become, the best friend, spouse, parent, child.
Let’s take a look at the flame of the Chanukah menorah and remember that each of us is a precious Jewish neshama. On a deeper level, we are all really one neshama. Let’s connect our flames so we can all burn brighter.
Let’s stop competing. Leave that to the Greeks.