As you surely know by now, I am not a big sports fan, and the Olympics draw my attention only as much as the spirit of friendly international competition appeals to my love of humanity. The story of the Italian and Qatari high-jumpers agreeing to share the gold medal was heartwarming; Simone Biles’ pulling herself out of some of her events was at turns disappointing and inspiring. In the latter case, and particularly in light of Naomi Osaka’s removal of herself from the French Open earlier this summer due to her own exhaustion, Biles’ predicament brought to light something which we often do not see in these competitions: that even people who display seemingly super-human abilities are still real people with real emotions and physical limitations, who sometimes need to protect themselves.
Last week, the New York Times published an opinion piece by former professional skier Zoe Ruhl entitled, “Our Culture of Winning at All Costs Is Broken. It Almost Broke Me.” Ms. Ruhl, now a medical student, was a member of the United States World Cup Telemark ski team, and at age 16 won a World Cup race. She documents how world-class skiing caused her physical and emotional pain, and that the coaches, doctors, and organizations pushed her to push herself harder, and to push all other concerns – school, health, family, life – out of the way in order to win.
She quit skiing competitively when she was a freshman at Williams College (located in my home town, of course, which is conveniently located near some very good skiing), citing the costs to her body and mind. She describes her departure as follows:
I learned that the dates for nationals were during a school week and would force me to miss classes. I reached out to the heads of the U.S. Telemark Ski Association and appealed to them. I told them I couldn’t miss more school. The association’s board of directors unanimously denied me a waiver.
Here’s how I heard the board’s response: You either care about this sport or you don’t. It felt to me like a choice between giving up my life and health for skiing or quitting. So I made the choice: I was out. I chose to violate my contract. I chose to give up my spot on the team. But really, I chose myself. I chose my future and my well-being.
Though she enjoyed the competition and of course appreciated winning, Ms. Ruhl realized that the cost to herself – her emotional state, her physical health, even her future – was too high. Winning at all costs was not a good strategy. So she gave it up.
Many of us were surprised and perhaps disappointed when Simone Biles temporarily pulled out of Olympic events. The news of Naomi Osaka’s departure following a win at the French Open, because she was threatened with fines and expulsion after refusing to do a press conference, was also shocking. But these women all made the right choices for themselves. They were honest about their limits; they acknowledged that winning at all costs would not be healthy for them in the long run.
Today in Parashat Shofetim, we encountered the following verse, really quite striking in its simplicity of language as well as its spiritual import (Devarim / Deuteronomy 18:13):
תָּמִ֣ים תִּֽהְיֶ֔ה עִ֖ם ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶֽיךָ׃
You must be perfect with the LORD your God.
What does it mean to be תָּמִ֣ים / tamim / “perfect” with God? I’m so glad you asked!
Judging from its context, adjacent to commandments to avoid fortune-tellers, Rashi, the 11th-century French commentator, glosses this with a midrashic interpretation from Sifrei Devarim:
תמים תהיה עם ה’ אלהיך. הִתְהַלֵּךְ עִמּוֹ בִתְמִימוּת, וּתְצַפֶּה לוֹ, וְלֹא תַחֲקֹר אַחַר הָעֲתִידוֹת, אֶלָּא כָּל מַה שֶּׁיָּבֹא עָלֶיךָ קַבֵּל בִּתְמִימוּת וְאָז תִּהְיֶה עִמּוֹ וּלְחֶלְקוֹ:
You must be perfect: walk before God whole-heartedly, put your hope in God and do not attempt to investigate the future, but whatever it may be that comes upon you, accept it whole-heartedly, and then you shall be with God and become God’s portion.
Rashi suggests that we should go about our lives in humility, understanding that whatever life throws at us, we should try to live with it. It is only in this completely upright approach to life that we can share in the portion of holiness allotted to us.*
Being wholehearted is not about being physically perfect or emotionally flawless, but rather that we can acknowledge and accept our flaws, to take the curveballs as they are launched at us, and handle our lives in a way that reflects who we really are, not the theoretically perfect version of ourselves.
We cannot hold ourselves to some ridiculous high standard of perfection, even those of us who are positively God-like in our abilities. No matter how talented, or athletic, or brilliant we may be, we are still human. To aspire to anything more than that is not just unhealthy, it is foolhardy. It is something akin to the Migdal Bavel, the Tower of Babel, back in Parashat Noah. We cannot aspire to be God-like; the results would be disastrous.
So kol hakavod to Simone Biles, and Naomi Osaka, and Zoe Ruhl, for knowing their limits, for understanding that ultimately their emotional and physical health was more important than winning. The whole-hearted approach to life is to not to push yourself to be something you are not, but rather to push yourself to be exactly who you are at all times.
And this is an especially important thing to remember a few weeks before Rosh HaShanah, as we begin to take inventory in ourselves in preparation for the odyssey of the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the ten days of repentance.
Reb Zusya of Anapol, who lived in 18th century Ukraine, is perhaps best known for saying, “When I get to olam haba, the world to come, the Qadosh Barukh Hu will not ask me, “Why were you not more like Moshe, or more like Avraham,’ but rather, ‘Why were you not more like Zusya?”
And, lest you think that this principle applies only to world-class athletes, let us also remember that the curse of winning at all costs has infected our world in many areas: in politics, at work, in our families and communities.
In politics, winning at all costs can lead to the collapse of democracy; we have seen it in other nations, and we are seeing hints of it here in America as well.
At work and in business, winning at all costs leads to toxic environments and unethical decisions.
In family life, winning at all costs causes emotional rifts that sometimes result in estrangement from those who love us.
In communal life, winning at all costs creates an environment in which dissent is not tolerated, and organizations descend into chaotic infighting.
I’m sure that many of us could think of specific examples in which we as individuals have been hurt by others who pursue winning to the detriment of the people around them.
I noticed this week on Facebook a former ELC parent lamenting the fact that she could not find a recreational sports option for her 10-year-old. She said the following:
This is what I’m finding as I try to find healthy, ongoing rec sports for kids… you can’t casually join a [swim team], it has to be intense training, with parent involvement, fundraising … and often a major commitment at $300-600 a month. My kids aren’t going to be Olympic athletes or necessarily even high school or college athletes yet it feels like there is only the option to invest and train as if that’s the goal? We need more balanced sport-for-healthy-lifestyle instead of just competition and success.
If we are teaching children that young that training to win, at great expense and with great expectations is the only option, what message is that sending?
One of the most beloved teachers on my bookshelf is Theodor Geisel, best known as Dr. Seuss. I’ll never forget that, on my last day of undergraduate education, my chemical engineering professor read one of his books to our graduating class, Oh, The Places You’ll Go! In that book are the following lines:
Wherever you fly, you’ll be best of the best. Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.
Except when you don’t. Because, sometimes, you won’t.
We are all so fond of winning that we just cannot bear losing. We award trophies and dessert to all our kids, even as we attempt to teach them about good sportsmanship, so that their feelings will not be hurt if they lose. But perhaps we are doing more damage than good. We need to learn to accept loss, to accept the curveballs that are thrown at us. Because, as you all know, there are lots and lots of them over the course of our lives, and being a good sport – living and interacting graciously – is so much more valuable than merely winning. Loss is a humbling motivator for improving ourselves, for improving our world.
We are whole-hearted, tamim, when we find the balance, the grace, the healthy serenity between winning and losing, between pride and humility, between shameless self-advocacy and exposing our vulnerability.
As we journey through Elul, we should take our hearts in our hands, our whole hearts, and approach teshuvah with the sense of, I am not whole, but I can be once again. It is in this way that we improve ourselves, that we see ourselves as who we are, flaws and all, in order to build on what we have.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/14/2021.)
* Rashi’s logic seems somewhat opaque here, and his application of the midrash is admittedly murky. Given the context, I think that he is suggesting that if we manage to walk through life wholeheartedly, we will not need to consult mediums and soothsayers to tell us the future, since we will be “God’s portion,” i.e. God will be on our side, and hence no need for those other characters, upon whom the Torah frowns. But the greater point is not merely about fortune-tellers, but about our general approach to life.