Katie Ledecky lost a race at the Olympics. I do not follow competitive swimming but I know
that her losing, especially in a 400 meter race, is a big deal. It was the first time she had ever
lost race at the Olympics. What she did afterward, though, is an even bigger deal. She
laughed with Ariarne Titmus, the rising star who defeated her, and hugged her on their way
out of the pool. Then, in her postrace interview, she spoke about what a great race it was and
how proud she was to even make it to the podium with a silver medal.
I believe that Katie Ledecky understands something very important—that sports are not all
about winning and losing. Rather the competition helps us to look within ourselves and find
how we can be better people. Olympic athletes are told to go for the gold, but to what end?
In Parashat Ekev (this week’s Torah portion), Moshe reminds B’nei Yisrael (the Israelites) about
their sin with the Golden Calf, an event that raised the ire of Moshe and God. And yet, much
of the Mishkan, the desert tabernacle that was God’s dwelling as B’nei Yisrael trekked through
the wilderness, was adorned in gold. The issue, in other words, was not that B’nei Yisrael
looked fondly upon gold but rather that they saw the gold as the object of their affections
rather than the means to achieving a greater connection to God.
As we look forward to the beginning of a new school year, we have the opportunity to help
ourselves and others reach great heights. Olympic athletes often look for new training
methods that will drive their success. (This was especially true during pandemic training,
when many of the normal training options were not available.) In much the same way, coming
up with creative approaches to education can help drive student success. Helping students
tackle challenges with a growth mindset can be vital to their continuing to thrive even when
they get stuck. Helping students find connections between the classroom and their own lives
puts their learning in perspective and gives it greater meaning.
Perfection in life might be an impossible goal, but striving for the gold standard can lead to
Rabbi Eric Zaff