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Is Competition Healthy?

Nitzavim-Vayelech (Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30 )

by Rabbi Boruch Leff

Sadly, Moshe prepares to leave the stage in this week's Parsha, Vayelech. He declares that he will not be leading the Jewish people into the Land of Israel, his lifetime wish and goal. He calls Yehoshua to take over for him after he is gone and he strengthens Yehoshua with inspiring words (Devarim 31:7-8).

There was no sense of bitterness displayed by Moshe, despite the fact that he must have been envious of Yehoshua's role. Had Moshe not sinned in Parshat Chukat with the rock, he, not Yehoshua, would be fulfilling his dream of entering Israel as leader of the Jewish people. In fact, Moshe gave his leadership to Yehoshua with a 'good eye,' with even more enthusiasm than he had been commanded to give (see Rashi Bamidbar 27:23).

Moshe teaches us much in the area of not engaging in damaging rivalries and competitions, as did the 2002 Major League All-Star Game. Allow me to explain.

I never understood soccer (football, for you Europeans). How could you end a game in a tie? Isn't the whole point of sports to crush your opponent and win? How could the players and fans tolerate when their team tied? The game loses its meaning!

I was always very proud that baseball, the American national pastime, could never end in a tie. In fact, it's the only sport that could theoretically continue forever, extra inning after extra inning, with no time limit. Winning is all that counts, no matter how long it takes.

I was always proud of baseball - that is until the Summer of 2002.

Dominating the Summer 2002 news headlines, as if it were as significant as the war on terrorism, was this anomaly:

"Major League Baseball All-Star Game Ends Tied: NL 7,
AL 7, 11 innings, Final"

"By the time the All-Star game ended, the sport had another record - but one it wants to forget. Fans booed and threw bottles when the game was declared a 7-7 tie after 11 innings Tuesday night because both teams ran out of pitchers."

"I want to take this opportunity to apologize to the fans," commissioner Bud Selig said. "This is a very regrettable situation."

"This is terrible," fan Tim Dugan of Chicago said. "We've been ripped off."

The sellout crowd of 41,871 at Miller Park loudly chanted "Let them play!" and "Refund!" A few fans in right field tossed bottles to protest the decision, which came after Selig conferred with both managers." (By Ben Walker, AP Baseball Writer, July 10, 2002)

How did the teams run out of pitchers?

The policy of the managers recently has been to make sure that every player (30 on each team) is used during the 9-inning contest. If a game is tied and extra innings are needed, the teams quickly run out of pitchers who cannot throw for too many innings. No one wants to risk injuries to the players or 'overwork' them especially in an All-Star game that doesn't count in the standings.

"They made the right decision. It's only a friendly game," Milwaukee shortstop Jose Hernandez said. "The fans weren't expecting that ending, but they've got to understand. I know they want to see a great game, but there were no more guys in the bullpen."

It's only a friendly game - wise words from Mr. Hernandez. But that's really the way every game or sport should be viewed.

When we truly think about it, competition is not so healthy for one's character. If I can only succeed by putting you down, doesn't that make me wish for you to fail, more than drive me to succeed?

I've often wondered about professional sports leagues. Every team begins the season thinking and hoping that they will win the championship. Yet, everyone knows that only one team will be smiling at the end of the season. Every other team will basically look back at the season as having been a failure. Why? Because we have created a society which preaches that if you are not the best, then you are not worth much.

No one really believes the old sports saying, "It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game."

The other oft-quoted saying is everyone's real philosophy, "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing."

So, the All-Star game managers want to allow every player in the game. They don't necessarily play only the absolutely best players. What could be wrong with that? They should do this more often. It would certainly increase the quality of society's character.

We live in an environment that motivates through competition. Even our schools have student-comparison charts on the bulletin board and Bees to determine who knows the material best. The focus has shifted from 'who knows things well' to 'who knows things best.'

The Torah has a term for this that is not very complimentary, 'mitkabed bekalon chaveiro,' gaining respect through another's disgrace. Such conduct, done continuously throughout one's life, causes one to lose his share in the World to Come (Rambam, Laws of Repentance 3:14).

If all I have to do to be successful is to beat you, it's a whole lot easier to cause you to do worse than me, rather than to get myself to do better than you. The result: students will not push themselves to truly reach their personal maximum if all they have to do to flourish is defeat someone else.

And what happens to the weaker students who know that they cannot actually win the competition? What is their drive to do their best? Does it really make sense to reward the brightest students more for easily winning than the slower ones who are doing their best?

Watch kids when they play sports. Do they play for exercise and for the development of their skills, or do they play in order to win? Have you seen the way otherwise pure, good-natured kids, will transform into screaming tigers on the baseball field?

"He was safe!" "No way, he was out!" When the kids choose up sides, do they try to even out the teams so they will have a good competition, or do they seek to get the best players in order to win the contest? Are they not guilty of 'malbin pnai chavairo b'rabim' - humiliating their friend in public (which also makes one lose his share in the World to Come, Rambam, Laws of Repentance 3:14) when they avoid picking the 'loser' players? How does the last kid picked feel when nobody wants him?

Yes, we should be competitive, but only with ourselves. If I ran the mile in 8 minutes last week, let me try to run it in 7 minutes today. If I got a 90 on the last test, let me attempt to get a 95 this time. Winning does not have to mean defeating someone else. It can be accomplished by struggling against ourselves, trying to improve upon our personal past performance.

The All-Star game of baseball ended in a tie. But I'm still proud of baseball. The league took a break from the 'value' of competition because they wanted to let everyone get in the game and have a good, friendly time. In doing so, they reminded me that competition and winning are not what is important. Treating all people with respect should be the overriding value. Not succeeding at someone else's expense is what is significant.

Sometimes sports CAN teach you good character.

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