Israel Tennis Star Stops Game Before Yom Kippur
David Sela made a clear statement that nothing is more important than his Jewish identity.
Israeli tennis star David Sela was playing to win last Friday as the sun was setting in Shenzhen, China, ushering in Yom Kippur. Sela, 32, is Israel’s top men’s singles tennis player. He was competing in the quarter finals in the ATP World Tour for tennis pros. That afternoon, he had lost his first set against Alexandr Dolgopolov, the top-ranked Ukrainian male tennis player, but then he defeated Dolgopolov 6-4 in their second set. Playing hard in the middle of the third set, Sela checked his watch. Then he walked over to the judge and told him he was forfeiting the game because Yom Kippur was about to begin and he would not play on Yom Kippur. In so doing, he sacrificed not only $12,000, but, more important for a tennis pro, he sacrificed 45 ranking points, which altered his world ranking.
His brother Ofir later explained in a social media post that David is not particularly religious but as a representative of the Jewish state, he respects the holiness of Yom Kippur.
What would make a Jew who is not particularly religious and whose life since the age of 15 has been devoted to winning tennis tournaments forfeit an important match?
Anyone who has ever spent Yom Kippur in Israel has experienced the utter uniqueness of this holy day. Israel is the only country in the world that closes its international airport one day a year – on Yom Kippur. Israel is also the only country in the world that ceases its television and radio broadcasts one day a year – on Yom Kippur. In this country of constant religious quarrels among Jews, the only thing that we Israeli Jews hold in unanimous agreement is the sanctity of Yom Kippur.
To shine a light into this deep and mysterious commitment, one must understand that in Judaism the ultimate Divine punishment is not death. Rather, on a national level, the ultimate punishment is exile from the Land of Israel. On an individual level, the ultimate punishment is kareit, which means being spiritually cut off from the collective soul of the Jewish People.
Although every soul is unique, all Jews are a cell in the meta-soul of the Jewish People, a collective spiritual entity that binds together all of us on the most sublime level. Even the most grievous sins of murder and adultery do not cut off a Jew from his or her soul connection to the group soul of the Jewish People.
This means that even the most wayward, dishonest, or promiscuous Jews are still Jews as long as they cling to their Jewish identity. Yom Kippur is the signature of Jewish identity. It is the statement – whether at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv or on the tennis courts of Shenzhen, China – that whatever else I am, my deepest, indissoluble identity is that I am part of the Jewish People.
In clinging to his Jewish identity, David Sela understood that it is worth more than even the greatest championship.