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Parshas Terumah (5770)

Judaism and the Olympics: The Real Competition

The President of Mexico announced last week that Mexico will not participate in the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver. He stated: “Casi cada uno que puede funcionar, saltar, ola nadada ha salido ya del pams.” [Translation: “Pretty much everyone who can run, jump, or swim has already left the country.”] Did you hear about the dumb guy who won gold for his country in the javelin catching competition? He was so excited with his medal, he had it bronzed!

I think the strangest event is the biathlon. That involves skiing and guns. How do you practice that? Do you go skiing during a weekday when there's no one around?

You really got to love the Olympics. It always provides great material for comedians (and Rabbis). But seriously, folks … beyond the jokes, I believe there is a great lesson to be learned from the Olympics, and it has a connection to this week’s Torah portion as well!

In Parshas Terumah we find the Jewish people building a Mishkan (Sanctuary) for G-d’s Divine Presence to dwell in while they journeyed through the desert on the way to the Land of Israel. One of the main vessels which they were commanded to build was the Menorah (candelabrum). As recorded in next week’s Torah portion, the Menorah was to be kindled with shemen zayis zach, pure olive oil (see Exodus 27:20).

Indeed, the olive is one of the main symbols of Chanukah, the Jewish holiday commemorating the victory of the Jews over their Greek oppressors in 165 BCE and the great miracle of the one day’s worth of olive oil to light the Menorah that lasted for eight days.

Interestingly, the ancient Greeks also used the symbol of the olive. The olive was the Grecian symbol of the glory of victory at the Olympics. The winner of competitions was given a crown of wild olive. This wreath was the only prize given at the Olympic Games, and yet it was the most eagerly contested distinction in Greece.

Now, as you probably saw on the news, there are many people out there protesting the Olympics in Vancouver for various reasons. But what you may not have known is that Mattisyahu and the Maccabees in ancient Judea who revolted against the Hellenistic Greeks also protested the Olympics.

What is about these competitive games that so rankled our ancestors? Aren’t competitive sports a good thing?

The answer to this question has to do with a fundamental difference between the way the Jews and Greeks view success and achievement in this world – and both are represented by the olive.

You see, the dark, bitter olive has hidden potential inside it – i.e. olive oil which can be used to light up the darkness. But it first has to be squeezed and pressed. In this way, the olive represents the struggle and “competition” we each have to reach our inner potential.

Judaism recognizes this battle within ourselves to bring out our best, i.e. to allow our inner neshamah to shine, as being of paramount importance. The Kabbalists refer to this struggle to shine through the darkness as Hod, or “glory”. It is the glory of striving to do better. It is the glory of the struggle to overcome obstacles and difficulties to achieve our inner potential.

The Greeks also attempted to achieve personal glory – “the glory that was Greece” - by establishing the Olympics Games. Competing in such games allows a person to be involved in the pure joy of expressing best efforts; to have the courage to fight the odds –which are all ingredients of Hod. As Homer wrote in the Odyssey: “There is no greater glory for a man as long as he lives than that which he wins by his own hands and feet.”

Yet, in the Olympic competition, Greece revealed the difference between Israel and the nations. As Rabbi Matis Weinberg writes in his amazingly deep book Chanukah: Patterns in Time: “Competition is the inverse of Hod: Competition implies the value of the results – Hod exists exclusively where the attempt, and only the attempt, is everything. Competition measures one man in terms of another – Hod sees only the individual.”

In Judaism, the only competition you have is with yourself, to see if you can reach your potential. Everyone who sincerely tries (even if he/she does not succeed) is a winner and worthy of glory. But in the ancient Olympics, only those who were the “best” in their respective competitions received the coveted olive wreath. All the others – no matter how hard they tried – were losers. (It’s telling that the word athlete in ancient Greece literally meant “prize seeker”.)

This was the “Glory that was Greece” – writes Rabbi Weinberg – a “glory” predicated on besting someone else instead of doing one’s best. And it was precisely this worldview that was so antithetical to Judaism that caused our ancestors, the Maccabees, to rise up in protest against the Greeks and their Olympics.

In our modern-day Olympics, not much has changed. A young athlete can spend the better part of his early life on the slopes, practicing his snowboarding routine over and over again a thousand times, yet in one defining moment during the Olympics, so long as he doesn’t get up there on the podium for a medal - even if he does his personal best – he gets no glory. It’s all about the results, period.

How far removed this is from the Jewish view in which effort, and only effort, is what counts, and in which true glory and Hod comes not from winning, but from doing your personal best. Go, Team Judaism, Go!

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