> Spirituality > Personal Growth

Sugar Bowl Priorities

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Shraga Simmons

Are we more interested in 'getting ahead' or in doing the right thing?

January 1, 2003

When the Florida State football team played in the Sugar Bowl on January 1, it was without starting quarterback Chris Rix. That’s because last week, Rix missed a final exam and was deemed academically ineligible to play.

Florida State had taken a stand: We are an academic institution first, and an athletic team second. Our priorities are clear, even if it reduces our chance of winning a major bowl game, threatening a loss of prestige and financial rewards. (Florida State lost, 26-13.)

This reminds me of my own brush with big-time college athletics. Years ago, at one of America's largest universities, I was taking a biology lab course, a requirement for all undergraduates. On the first day of class, we were told to "pair up" with what would be our lab partner for the duration of the semester. I sat down next to a guy my age in the back of the room. We became lab partners and fast friends.

Fred was a fascinating character. An All-American cornerback playing for our school's championship team (he later played in the NFL), Fred kept me entertained with fascinating stories of his on- and off-field escapades.

But while Fred excelled on the field, he viewed academics as a necessary evil. In that respect, I served his purpose well. The lab course was structured so that every day we were assigned a different experiment to perform. We'd record our findings in a workbook, answer a litany of analysis questions, and upon completion would be free to go. The professor allotted three hours to complete the work, but I had a knack for finishing in 45 minutes. Fred would basically watch me experiment, and I would show him what to write in his workbook. We were always the first pair to finish and leave.

Fred loved me for sparing him dreadful hours of sitting in biology lab.

Fred had been inattentively relying on all my answers; he was sure to fail the course.

Grades for the course were based entirely on a single, final exam, and it wasn't until two weeks before the exam that I suddenly woke up to a grim reality. All semester, Fred had been inattentively relying on all my answers; he was sure to fail the course.

I quickly grabbed the phone. "Fred," I said, "the final exam is coming up and you need to learn the concepts we've been dealing with. I created the problem and I'm going to fix it. We'll get together every evening for the next two weeks, and I'll teach you whatever you need to know to pass the final exam."

Fred chuckled at my naivet?. "Don't worry," he said. "I spoke to the professor and he knows who I am. I already passed the exam."

The university had turned a blind eye; they chose winning over academic integrity.


This issue extends far beyond the football field. In fact, it could be said that all of life comes down to a simple choice: material success vs. spiritual success. (Or in other words, "getting ahead" vs. doing the right thing.)

Of course, these choices are not mutually exclusive, and it is certainly possible to fulfill both. But when they come into conflict -- as on occasion they inevitably will -- what do we choose?

This choice is the fulcrum which balances how we view the world and interact with others.

For example, which do we encourage our employees to do: To hide the defect in our product, or to highlight the advantages while disclosing the defect?

Or when sitting around the dinner table, which incident arouses a stronger praise
: When a child scores the winning goal, or when he treats another person with respect?

This choice is the fulcrum which balances how we view the world and interact with others.


The Torah (Genesis 48:20) spells out what our priority should be. Before his death, Jacob blessed his two grandchildren, saying that for all generations, Jewish parents will bless their children to be "like Ephraim and Menashe." (Many parents give this blessing to their children every Friday night.)

Yet the order of the two names, Ephraim and Menashe, is peculiar. Since Menashe was older brother, we would expect him to come first.

The commentaries explain that the order is based on how these two brothers spent the majority of their time. Ephraim spent his days learning Torah with his grandfather, Jacob. Menashe, meanwhile, served as executive assistant to his father Joseph, the prime minister of Egypt.

The two brothers represent our dual role in this world: on one hand, professional achievement and livelihood (Menashe), combined with the need for spiritual and personal growth (Ephraim).

Indeed, both are necessary. But the question is: Which takes priority? When getting a better job means sacrificing ethical standards, what gives way to what?

Jacob's message is that Torah ethics must precede professional achievement.

Jacob's message is that the "Ephraim" attribute of Torah ethics must precede the "Menashe" attribute of professional achievement.

In fact, our essence as a people depends on this idea. The Talmud (Nedarim 81a) says that the Jews were exiled from the Land of Israel in the first century CE "because they did not bless the Torah first." In other words, explains Rabbi Yissocher Frand, the parents of that era lacked the right priority. When blessing our children, we are supposed to say, "May God make you like Ephraim (i.e. give you spiritual-ethical success) and like Menashe (professional-financial success)." Both are necessary. But if it is not clear that Torah ethics must be the focus of our lives -- that we "bless the Torah first" -- then there is cause for destruction of the land.

It's all a matter of where we place the emphasis.


Years ago I met a young woman who had recently become Torah observant. She had graduated from a prestigious liberal arts college, and upon meeting up with some of her parent's country club friends, she was asked: "What do you want to do with your life?"

"My goal is to become a good person," she said. "A good daughter, a good neighbor, a good friend. And hopefully one day, a good wife and mother."

That young woman had revised her previously held assumptions. Yes, it's nice to become a successful [doctor, lawyer, accountant... fill in the blank]. But that is not the primary purpose of life.

That's why I think this year's Sugar Bowl is so significant. Because when Florida State took to the field, though they were without their starting quarterback, they had something much greater: their priorities intact. And that's a positive new years message for us all.

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