Rabbi Charles P. Sherman
Two stories which I hope Jewish graduates of whatever level would remember as they move on to the next phase of their lives. They teach us that – with all due respect to Vince Lombardi – kindness trumps winning.
Vince Lombardi Was Wrong
Whether they’re graduating from Pre-School, Middle School, High School, or college, students get a lot of advice this month – graduation speeches, well-meaning relatives and, of course, unlimited parental advice. So I’d like to share just two stories which I hope graduates would remember as they move on to the next phase of their lives. The rest of you who are not graduating this year can listen as well; you may find these stories helpful to you too.
The first story comes from a Jewish day school in New York called Chush, a school especially created for children who have a variety of challenges. Other day schools didn’t know how to handle such kids. They didn’t have the facilities or the teachers to deal with them, so someone created the Chush School so that kids who were learning disabled or kids with autism or physical handicaps could get an intensive Jewish education.
A boy named Shaya attended the Chush School. Shaya is autistic, short, pudgy, clumsy; he does not have much physical coordination. Needless to say, he can’t play ball very well. But one day Shaya was watching the kids from the nearby yeshiva play baseball. Going into the eighth inning, the score was 8 to 1. Therefore, when Shaya asked if he could play, they figured – why not? What harm could he do? They were already behind by seven runs, so it really didn’t matter that Shaya didn’t know how to play.
Then, in the bottom of the eighth inning, Shaya’s team picked up four runs – now it was 8 to 5. Then in the ninth inning they got three men on base. Now it was Shaya’s turn to bat – two outs, the bases loaded.
The adults who were watching the game were sure that the other kids wouldn’t let Shaya bat, not at such a critical time, when the whole game depended on the next batter. But, much to everyone’s surprise, Shaya stood at the plate. It was soon clear that he had no idea even how to hold the bat. So one of his teammates stood next to him and helped him face the pitcher and grip the bat.
The pitcher could see that Shaya had no idea how to hit. So he moved in closer and he lobbed the ball to Shaya as slowly as he could. Shaya swung and missed – twice. The pitcher moved in closer and threw the ball extra gently. This time Shaya hit the ball, and it rolled a few feet.
Everyone cheered as Shaya lumbered toward first base. The pitcher fielded the ball, recognized what was happening and deliberately threw the ball over the first baseman’s head. While the first baseman chased the ball, the coach told Shaya to touch the base and then turn and head for second. The coach kind of pushed and guided him in the right direction. The crowd cheered Shaya on.
The right fielder who retrieved the ball figured out by now what was going on, so he threw the ball over the head of the second baseman. Everyone yelled “Run, Shaya, Run!”
The shortstop got the ball and purposely threw it wide past the catcher, who took his time finding it, until Shaya and the three other players who preceded him scored.
As Shaya lumbered into home plate, his cheeks red with excitement and pride, all the boys from both teams lifted him up on their shoulders, carried him around the field singing “siman tov u’mazel tov” and “Dovid Yisrael, chai, chai v’kayam.” They called Shaya their hero for hitting a grand slam homerun and winning the game for his team.
Sure, these were kids who loved baseball and who enjoyed winning. And yet these kids evidently felt making a challenged child feel good about himself was more important than winning this game.
My friends, I believe that is a deeply Jewish story. It is a story about young people who let a special needs kid be a hero, and if you understand this story, then you understand what Jewish education is really all about.
So many secular kids are brought up to believe that winning is the only thing that counts. If the umpire calls them out, they watch their fathers go ballistic and so they go ballistic, too. They have been taught that winning is the only thing that counts – period.
But these yeshiva kids – both in school and at home – learned that what counts the most is having some concern for the feelings of another person, even if that individual can’t play very well. Sometimes kindness trumps winning.
A student brought up with Jewish values, learns that helping a challenged child feel a bit of self-esteem is more important than winning a game. A student in cheder or in religious school learns that saving one person’s life – including his or her inner-life – is like saving a whole world.
Second story. When I was a young rabbi in Connecticut, I used to take our Confirmation Class to New York each year. Yeah, we’d do the usual sites – we’d go to see the Hebrew Union College, Temple Emanu-El, the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue, Ellis Island, the Lower East Side, a kosher deli. Some years for Shabbas we’d go to Boro Park to experience what Chasidic life was like, Some Chasidic groups were extremely hospitable.
When we came back from the trip, I’d gather my Confirmands together for a debriefing session. I’d ask them “what was the most important thing you experienced on the trip?”.
I still remember what one of the boys reported to me. He said: “I’ve seen lots of synagogues and I’ve been to lots of museums, so the museums and shuls that we saw in New York were not so impressive. But I’ll tell you what I saw that really did impress me.
“We were housed with a Chasidic family. Shabbas morning we headed for shul with our host. We were a few minutes late so we were walking as fast as we could. Then we saw an old man up ahead of us walking slowly, feeling his way with a cane. Our host told us: ‘We have to slow up and either walk behind him or else walk with him, because if we pass him by, he’ll feel bad.’
“One of our boys said to the host: ‘We’re late. Services have already begun.’ (He was a well-trained Reform Jew – you get to Temple on time!)
“The host said: ‘That’s alright. God can wait. Better to come to services late than to make an old man feel bad’.”
Then this 16-year old boy turned to me and said: “Rabbi, I come from a pretty successful family. My dad is a lawyer; my mom is a high-powered executive. The reason they are so successful is because they drive hard, they are determined to get ahead, and that is the way they want me to be, too.
“Never in my whole life have I ever experienced anything like I did that Shabbat morning on the street in Brooklyn. I never saw a whole group on its way to services stop and walk slowly so that an old man could keep up and not be embarrassed.”
I tell you these two stories tonight, my friends, because I believe they contain the key to understanding what a truly human mentschlick life is really all about. This world is not a rat race, and we do not live in a dog-eat-dog society. The world is a journey on which we all travel together – some a little faster, some a little slower – but all of us together. The idea of the game is not to defeat the other guy, to achieve some victory before he does. The goal of the game is to not hurt someone else’s feelings but, on the contrary, to show somebody a little kindness.
Vince Lombardi was wrong – winning is not the only thing, nor the most important thing. Our Jewish perspective is that living in a menschlich way is the most important thing and paying attention to even the almost invisible people around us, noticing their pain and doing whatever we can to alleviate it is the most important thing.
May the path of our lives be filled with the compassion to know when kindness is required and the humility to offer it selflessly. Kayn y’hi ratzon, may this be God’s will and ours. Amen
— I am indebted to Rabbi Jack Riemer for much of this message.