When Life Is a Competition, We All Lose

The recent ESPN documentary “The Last Dance” probed the psyche of Michael Jordan as he led the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships in eight years. In particular, it focused on his hyper-competitiveness — his desperate, if not pathological need to win, to be the best, no matter what, against anyone, and at anything. One of the themes that ran through the documentary was the price of his laser-focused, win-at-all-costs mentality, a price that was paid by his teammates, his business associates, his loved ones, and, ultimately, even by Jordan himself. To paraphrase the iconic ad slogan, not only could we not really be like Mike, we probably do not even want to. The costs of living life as a series of competitions are too high, the rewards, in the long run, are just not worth it.

According to the 18th century Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschutz, this was the real issue that plagued the Israelites in the wilderness. This week’s portion, Beha’alotkha, tells the story of how they complained about the manna, the bread God provided them from the heavens each morning, claiming that they were tired of it, and instead desired the variety of foods they enjoyed in Egypt. 

Rabbi Eybeschutz understands that the Israelites’ real problem with the manna was that it was provided to everyone in equal measure – each person received one portion per day, providing ample sustenance for that one day, but no more. As a result, nobody felt especially prosperous or comfortable, regardless of the fact that they were nourished and full at the end of each day, because they did not have more than their neighbors. More to the point, even though everyone had enough to eat, they did not feel that sense of abundance because they did not see anyone who had less than they did. Trapped in a mentality of seeing life as a series of competitions, of sorting people into winners and losers, they were miserable when God provided for everyone to flourish equally.

Rabbi Eybeschutz’ incisive comment is especially resonant in this moment of a growing political divide between those who speak of America’s international relationships in terms of competitions, so that each treaty is a deal with a winner and a loser, and, on the other hand, those who see America’s relationships as opportunities to create a mutually beneficial reality. Rabbi Eybechutz may also have something to say to the divide between those who respond “All Lives Matter” to the ongoing “Black Lives Matter” protests since the killing of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police. In both cases, he would likely respond that while it may be more immediately satisfying to win, and that reforms in the name of equality may feel like dangerous concessions to those who currently enjoy advantages within society, the harder, yet better path is creating that rising tide that lifts all boats.

At the end of the Torah portion, after appointing 70 elders to share the burden of leadership, Moses hears that two more individuals, Eldad and Meidad, were prophesying in the camp. Joshua, Moses’ student, was appalled and demands that they be imprisoned, but Moses refuses. “Would that all the people of God be prophets,” he responds, “that God put God’s spirit upon them.”

According to one rabbinic interpretation, the message of Eldad and Meidad’s prophecy was not easy for Moses to hear; it was a prediction of his own death in the wilderness before reaching the promised land! Despite this, Moses understood that creating more empowered voices was in the interest of the greater good. Moses’ response challenges us to listen to the voices in our own world that are difficult to listen to.

At the end of the day, a world in which many prophets are empowered and heard, as hard as they may be for us to hear, is a world capable of moving past petty resentments, and grievances, and towards a better future – not always harmoniously, but together.

Prepared for pre-recorded Shabbat services from The Hampton Synagogue
televised by JBS-Jewish Broadcast Service the weekend of June 13-14, 2020

About the Author
Avraham Bronstein is rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, NY.
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