Crossing G-d’s Goal Line at MetLife Stadium – Part III
It is the season again.
While from some of the essays that I have written recently, one might think that I am referring to the NFL football season, or the MLB playoff season, I am, in fact, referring to the High Holiday season – the Yamim Noraim – the Days of Awe. The very special time every year that we regroup, reassess, and recommit ourselves to the core principles that ought to govern our lives. We take time to reflect on the successes and failures of the past, especially the recent past, in preparing to ask Hashem for another year of life and blessings.
Nevertheless, as the last in this series, maybe there are a few more lessons that we can take from the world of sports in our preparations. It is, after all, the beginning of a new season, and we are trying to make our case to the ultimate Team Owner to “renew our contract”, because we have something that we can contribute to the success of Team Klal Yisrael, in its quest to win the championship in the great world challenge of competing ideas, philosophies, ethics, and moral values. We wish to demonstrate that we will work hard and put out our effort for the team, that we will strive for personal excellence, and that we still have what it takes to keep striving for spiritual, moral, and intellectual growth as we move our personal and “team” goal forward.
First – the importance of preparation. You cannot show up on game day and expect to perform properly, unless you have gone through a sufficient period of training one’s mind and body to be up to the task. Perhaps one of the greatest complaints that many people have about the services on the Yamim Noraim is that they are long, boring and uninspiring. Even if the Chazzan is melodious and the Rabbi’s sermons are (hopefully) thought-provoking, unless one is prepared the Days of Awe might well seem like Awful Days. What types of preparations are needed?
Here are some:
- Going through the machzor to familiarize oneself with the background and meaning of the Davening. Zipping through unfamiliar arcane Hebrew poetic liturgy full of nuances and allusions to unfamiliar sources at breakneck speed is hardly meaningful to your average shul-goer, for whom even the regular daily davening is hard to translate and difficult to comprehend properly.
- Doing a real personal inventory of one’s successes and failures throughout the year. Beating one’s breast while quickly reciting Ashamnu, while not really having taken the time to think about one’s life goals and obligations, and even a minimum of personal accountability to them, is hardly sufficient. One should really come to shul on Rosh Hashana with a prepared list of not only the requests that one has of G-d, but also of the commitments that one is willing to realistically undertake in the coming year to improve their spiritual level.
- Doing some soul-searching in regard to the way one has treated the people in one’s life. This includes the many people that one encounters in business, in the community, and – most of all – one’s spouse and close relatives. It is crucial to try to make amends to those who one has offended, hurt, trivialized, or ignored, even if they bear some of the fault. One should try to look at the relationships that they have, or had, examine them to see if closeness has been lost, and strive to make sure that they have “cleaned their side of the street”, and made right whatever possible in those relationships.
Second – A commitment to strive for excellence. We had the great fortune this past week of having Rav Yissochor Frand שליט"א speak in our shul on the topic of gaining inspiration. One of his main points was that although there are many positive trends in our Orthodox community, there is a decided mediocrity to be found in the degree of passion which people bring to their service of G-d, with all too many of us just going through the motions as rote behavior or מצוות אנשים מלומדה . An athlete does not compete in order to come in in tenth place, or just show. He or she strives to excel, and thus gains the impetus to move on, even when motivation wanes and when difficulties arise, because of the passion of the strive to excel.
What can we present to Hashem? Will next year be the same old, same old? Or can we muster up the motivation to break out of mediocrity, and truly reach for the prize, something beyond the doldrums in which we have been caught? Let us not only go through the Holidays, but be uplifted by them!
Third – and here I will draw a contrast – we should know that unlike the famous quote that “Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing”, we should know that what counts in G-d’s arena is not who came in first, but who put in the most effort. As one Rebbi I had once said, “Hashem doesn’t count the pages you study; He counts the hours”. It really “doesn’t matter if you win or lose, or whom other people feel are “the important ones”; it is how you play the game” of life, observance and learning.
One has to feel some degree of pity for the Olympic swimmer who came in at fourth place in their event, trailing the winner by 19 tenths of a second. After all those years of sweat and toil, they went to the Olympics and came away with – nothing. No medal, no ribbon, no mention in the record books. Just a memory of years of missed fun activities that one’s peers engaged in, while practicing and refining their abilities – all for naught.
And yet, some things were gained, that no one will ever be able to take away from the “loser”. They know that they pushed themselves to a very great degree. That they did achieve the honor of representing their country on a world stage. That they are in the rare company of elite athletes who are at or near the absolute pinnacle of their sport. And that is something they can be proud of forever.
In our world as Torah Jews, not all of us will see our name in the papers, or be celebrated as a pillar of the community, or as a great scholar, etc. But each of us can live up to being the best person we can be. To be cheerful and happy as one toils to perfect oneself, away from the spotlights. To measure ourselves only by the standard of what we, ourselves, deep down know that we are capable of. And with that we should rejoice.
And finally Fourth – another contrast – it really matters. One of the most seductive things about sports is that one can invest a great deal of passion, energy, longing, and time into developing a deep relationship with a sports team or figure, and feeling ecstasy or agony if your beloved wins or loses. You can be supremely confident of your knowledge of the statistics and intangibles that go into the success of your team, and talk for hours with great authority about your convictions. But in the end, if you are wrong and/or if your team is unsuccessful, it really does not matter at all. No one’s life will be better or worse if the Yankees lose (except the professionals in the business), no one’s marriage or relationship with their kids will improve if the Jets beat the Giants, and the great problems and potential of the world will not be better now that the Nets are in Brooklyn. It really matters not a whit. And that is why it is so seductive to be a fan. You can pour all your passion to declaring your opinions which, if vindicated, make you feel great, and if not, don’t matter anyway.
Our relationship with Hashem, however, and our approach to Rosh Hashana, is different in the extreme. It is of ultimate importance how we come to Him on this day, and every day. While the world out there constantly tells us that G-d does not matter, Torah is an anachronism, religious observance is a pitiful waste of time, parochial Jewish concerns are anti-progressive etc etc, we affirm on the Days of Awe that “Our Relationship With Hashem Is Not Everything, It Is The Only Thing (that ultimately matters)”.
May we all merit to have a Good and Sweet year, filled with bracha and hatzlacha, much yiddishe nachas, and Yiddish success in life in achieving ultimate goals.