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Articles > The Attribute that Most Guarantees Success in Sports and in Life: “SPORT and JEWISH LIFE” Winning Essay

By Adina Erdfarb

Basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has said, “Don’t ever forget that you play with your soul as well as your body.” Sports require not only physical strength but also spiritual and mental ability as well, making athletics a multifaceted experience. Because of this, it is no surprise that many of the traits required for success in sports are the same characteristics that propel a Jewish, Torah-based lifestyle. To better explain this proposition, let us look to the introduction of the Ein Ya’akov, a compilation of the Talmud’s aggadic (narrative) material by Rav Ya’akov ibn Habib, who lived in the 16th century. The Ein Ya’akov quotes the following midrash (interpretation), which discusses the vexing question of the single most all-encompassing verse in the Torah.

Ben Zoma said, “We found a pasuk (verse) which is all inclusive: Shema, Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad – Hear O Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord alone.” (Deuteronomy 6:4).

Ben Nannas said, “We found a verse which is all inclusive: V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha - You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18)

Ben Pazai said, “We found a verse which is all inclusive: Et hakeves ha’echad ta’aseh baboker v’et hakeves hasheini ta’aseh bein ha’arbayim – You shall offer one sheep in the morning and the second sheep shall you offer at dusk.” (Exodus 29:39)

These three sages are by no means belittling the importance of obeying all 613 commandments of the Torah. Rather, they are hypothesizing which is the most all-encompassing of the Torah’s commandments. By closely examining each sage’s response, we can elicit the fundament principals of Judaism, and those of sports as well.

Ben Zoma’s proposal of the Shema reflects the core Jewish belief in G-d as King and Master. Every day, as we recite the Shema, we accept the yoke of G-d’s rule over us and our exclusive allegiance to G-d. Similarly, sports demands of athletes to always have their ultimate goal in mind. Any athlete looking to excel must constantly take into consideration that it will be a long and arduous process. Much practice is needed before one can truly reap the rewards of success in sports, which can be difficult for some to accept. Especially in today’s high-tech world where everything is instantly available, the “yoke” of hard work and extensive training is often unpopular. Nevertheless, any serious competitor must begin with the end in mind, always remembering the success which is his ultimate goal.

The second verse suggested in our passage, Ben Nanna’s stress on V’ahavta l’rei’acha komocha – loving your fellow as yourself – stressed the importance of treating your neighbor kindly. The purpose of the Torah is to purify our actions toward others, thereby improving our moral and ethical character. Along these lines, success in sports means nothing without proper sportsmanship. Gold medals and championship rings are worthless if not accompanied by proper regard for both teammates and opponents alike. In team and individual sports alike, any competition that lacks sportsmanship is bereft of any real value. Though the competitive nature of sports can often instill the “Win at all costs” mentality in an athlete, true success will only be achieved when he treats both his teammates and opponents with respect.

Finally, Ben Pazai’s vote for Exodus 29:39 (“et hakeves”) reflects the attribute of consistency. By bringing an offering twice a day – every day – the Kohen Gadol (high priest) displayed his constant commitment to serving G-d. Day in, day out, without fail, he would appear before the altar in the Holy Temple, eager to serve G-d through the animal he brought for sacrifice. Similarly, the characteristic of consistency is a central imperative in Judaism, as our own observance of the Torah requires indefatigable devotion to G-d and his commandments. Likewise, in order to succeed in sports, one needs an unfaltering commitment to hard work. Be it through long practices or early morning training sessions, unfailing perseverance in working toward goals takes an athlete a long way. The consistent dedication ensuring that hurdles will not stop you and obstacles will not hold you back is the first step toward success in sports.

In the end, the midrash concludes with an anonymous rabbi declaring, “The halacha – the final legal ruling – is in accord with Ben Pazai.” Consistency ultimately encompasses all other attributes that contribute to success in sports. When an athlete is completely committed to his goals, nothing can get in his way. Unswerving devotion is the key for anyone wishing to succeed in athletics, in authentic Jewish living, or for that matter, in anything in life. Once this quality is established and unwavering, the other attributes required for athletic success will only strengthen an athlete’s dedication.

It is worth noting that none of the above-mentioned factors have any relation to physical prowess or motor skills. Though basic athletic ability is obviously needed in order to compete, the most important factors are mental and spiritual ones. On the surface, sports and Judaism may seem unrelated, but in both instances, the initial motivation that drives a person to work toward his goals comes from the soul. Because of this, success in sports can yield more than just trophies and medals. It can even translate into an enhanced Judaism by serving as a means towards service of G-d.

Adina Erdfarb is a student at Stern College in New York City, and recently completed a year of study at Michlelet Mevaseret Yerushalyim in Jerusalem. She was a four-year member of her high school softball team and worked as a sports counselor in Jewish camp settings. In her essay application, she wrote that “the combination of Judaism and sports is a major part of my life and interests me very much”.

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