“Israel’s Olympic Shame.” So read the heading of an article by an Israeli columnist. My heart sank, fearful that some terrible scandal involving Israeli Olympic athletes had surfaced. What could it be? Attempted bribery of officials? Use of illegal enhancement drugs? Blatantly immoral behavior?
Answer: None of the above. The great shame was that the Israeli Olympic athletes were coming home without winning a single medal — not a gold, not a silver, not a bronze. Intoned the writer: “Israel must get serious about its sports program, or we will continue to be embarrassed in the international arena.” He called for a government investigation. Personally, however, I breathed a great sigh of relief that the headline was simply another ludicrous manifestation of the secular Israeli ideal: to fulfill Imitatio Goyi — imitation of the West.
It’s not that I don’t like sports. I do, have participated in them in the past, and though I am not a fanatic (long term for “fan”), es chata’ai ani mazkir hayom (Bereishis 36:9). I confess that I am still interested in my home town teams. But one has to put things into their proper niche. It is nice when your home team wins, and it might have been a transient source of some national pride ifIsrael had won a medal or two. But whether your team wins or loses does not reflect on your country for good or for ill.China spends billions to train their athletes for the Olympics and they win many medals, but they still remain cruel totalitarian states which imprison and torture their own citizens if they dare criticize their (unelected) leaders. They spend billions for they know that since in the eyes of the world winning is everything, the world will overlook who they really are.
Our values are topsy-turvy. Moshe Rabbeinu long ago warned us about being a dor tahapuchos — an upside-down generation (Devarim 32:20 ).We have not changed much. Given the choice of: A) winning a gold for volley ball and swimming and basketball, or b) winning a gold for the most deeply learned, the most devoted to service of G-d and man, the most sincerely religious, the most honest, the most generous — which would you choose for Israel? For those who realize that we are a holy people who, to use Thoreau’s felicitous phrase, “march to the beat of a different drummer,” the choice of “b” is obvious, for it reflects the ideal of being “ohr lagoyim — a light unto the nations.” For others, who want Israel to be “kechal hagoyim,” just another country that happens to speak Hebrew instead of Greek or Italian, it is a much closer call.…
Let the world point to us in derision and say, “Look at them, they won no Olympic medals.” Better this than to point to us in derision and say, “Look at them. Can this unspiritual nation be the same ones to whom the Torah was given at Sinai?” That would truly be an embarrassment.
By all means, let there be a government investigation — but into issues like the violence in secular Israeli schools, or into Israel’s pell-mell slide into Western-style materialism. Yes, sports are fine, athletics have their place, and the Olympics do celebrate peerless physical discipline and ability; but long after the medals turn into dust and rust, the tefillos of the coming Yamim Noraim — the overall coronation of Our Creator as our King, and the specific “kosveinu b’sefer hachaim — inscribe us in the Book of Life” — head the list of things which really matter in the destiny of a nation. See Zechariah 4:6, where neither chayil (might), nor koach (strength) are on that list.
There is an old Yiddish expression to describe a truly mortifying experience: “A shandeh un a charpeh — a shame and a humiliation.” It is not a shandeh to finish last in track and field. It is only a shandeh if one’s people finishes last in spiritual commitment and dedication. And the biggest shandeh of all — because of the distorted values it reveals— is the idea that not winning in the Olympics is a national shandeh.
May we be blessed with a year of continuing spiritual growth and faith, plus a deepened awareness of what to be ashamed of and what to be proud of.
This article first appeared in Mishpacha.