Olympic Judaism

by Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold

I know we’ve moved on to Pikudei, but I hope you enjoy my Drasha from this past Shabbat.

A bit of Olympic history for you:

When the modern olympic games were founded in 1894, only amateurs were allowed to compete. It was forbidden to play for any monetary gain. In fact, the 1912 Olympic decathlon champion Jim Thorpe was stripped of his medals when it was discovered that he had played semi-professional baseball before the Olympics.

Over the course of the 20th century, this idea slowly eroded, on mostly practical grounds. Athletes obviously needed to be funded in order to spend the time practicing and competing. They would avoid breaking the rules by having money deposited into trust funds rather than being paid directly. But slowly through the 1970s and 80s the rules were relaxed. In 1988, professional athletes were formally permitted.

It’s hard to imagine a world without baseball players on million-dollar salaries, or your favorite hockey player being paid to appear on a box of cereal. But in the beginning, there was a sense that the ideal athlete was an amateur, not a professional.

Why this fixation with the amateur player?

The word athlete comes from the ancient greek for “one who competes for a prize”. Ancient Greek athletes did, in fact, play for prize money. The word amateur, however, comes from Latin “amator”, or love. An amateur is someone who does it for the love of the game.

Our culture values the idea of the amateur, the person who acts out of love or commitment. Even when someone does something nice for me, I don’t feel as appreciative it if I think they did it out of a sense of obligation. We prefer good deeds that are done by choice. We consider it more noble to do the right thing because you WANT to, not because you feel you HAVE to.

It’s this tension between “have to” and “want to” that emerges from within our parsha.

We read about the beautiful and luxurious materials that were donated for the building of the Mishkan.

קְחוּ מֵאִתְּכֶם תְּרוּמָה, לַיהוָה, כֹּל נְדִיב לִבּוֹ, יְבִיאֶהָ אֵת תְּרוּמַת יְהוָה:  זָהָב וָכֶסֶף, וּנְחֹשֶׁת.

“Take from yourselves an offering for the Lord; every generous hearted person shall bring it, [namely] the Lord’s offering: gold, silver, and copper.”

The verses refer over and over to nediv libam – the people gave whatever they saw fit, out of the generosity of their heart; there was no prescribed amount. And in fact, they were so moved to give that Moshe had to do something that has never happened in any Jewish fundraising campaign ever since. Moshe had to ask them to stop donating! They had given too MUCH. (Devarim 36:6)

Rashi, however, reminds us that not all these materials were voluntary donations. Here, he refers back to a comment he made in Parshat Terumah, when we are first commanded with regards to the building of the Mishkan:

“[The materials]  were all given voluntarily; each person [gave] what his heart inspired him to give, except [for] the silver, which they gave equally, a half-shekel for each individual.”  (24:3)

The only material that came through obligatory collection was the silver. A tax of one half-shekel coin was levied from each person, and these coins provided the silver for the Mishkan.

What does Judaism more greatly value – a voluntary act of commitment, or one that is done out of a sense of obligation?

Our Sages assert Gadol hametzuveh v’oseh m’asher eino metzuveh v’oseh – It is greater to be commanded to perform mitzvot and to do them, rather than to do mitzvah out of choice or religious fervor.

This concept famously plays a central role when discussing the many mitzvot from which women are exempted. A woman is not obligated in a host of mitzvot – sitting in the sukkah, hearing the shofar, and wearing tzitzit to name a few. But a woman may choose to do these out of her own volition, and we know that Jewish women en masse have taken upon themselves some of these very central mitzvot – hearing the shofar is the most widespread example. And, of course, there is a very interesting discussion happening right now in the Orthodox community with regards to women who might choose to don tefillin. (Another conversation for another time; find me at Kiddush – or on a future blog post…)

We do admire people who go the extra mile, who do a mitzvah out of nedivut generosity of spirit. My husband Avi and I named our second daughter Nedivah as a nod to this concept – Nedivah means generous, or giving. Avi and I deeply value this characteristic of nedivut, and we wanted to impart it to our daughter.

But ultimately, Judaism places a greater value on the idea of obligation, commandedness – Metzuveh v’oseh. This is symbolized by the fact that although most of the Mishkan was built using materials that were given from a deep and overwhelming sense of zeal and generosity, it also contained in it the machatzit ha’shekel, the obligatory donation that each person was required to give.

The voluntary donations clearly provided all the materials needed, even more than enough. Why was it important to also utilize the half-shekel coins in the building of the Mishkan?

For this, we return to our Olympic athletes.

We may admire amateurs. Their sheer love and passion is what drives them. But ultimately, that is not sustainable en masse. The Olympics had to recognize the need for the professional athlete.

A pro athlete may feel exhilarated during his time on the rink, or on the ski slopes. But if he wakes up one day and doesn’t feel like getting on the ice, he still has to do it. He has committed himself to this, and he must rise to meet that commitment.

Ideally, we should all be amateur Jews. We should live the values of the Torah out of sheer joy and love for it. We hope that our fire of religious fervor is lit constantly.

But we also recognize that sometimes we may lose our motivation, or the challenges of a Jewish life may be too great. We may not always be internally motivated to make the decision to do what is moral and right. It is then that we might become “professional” Jews. We might recognize that we each have a responsibility to contribute that half-shekel to the world. We are obligated to uphold Jewish values and to participate in Jewish life, even when our internal drive is not as strong.

It is that sense of obligation that is gadol – that is greatness. Metzuveh v’oseh, it is our commandedness that keeps us active and committed, that keeps our community going.

Ideally, even when we act out of a sense of obligation, this will lead us to rekindle the fire, so that we can become Jewish amateurs, and do it simply because we love it.

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One Response to Olympic Judaism

  1. Anonymous says:

    Yasher Koach!

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