A competitive spirit can reap spiritual rewards

Torah comes from the same Hebrew word as “instruction.” Each commandment (and verse) in the Torah has its simple directive — to know what to do — along with its parallel layers of instruction. This month we are involved in an ongoing mitzvah wherein every day we have a new commandment:

“And you shall count for yourselves from the morrow of the Shabbat, from the day that you bring the Omer [offering] that is raised, seven complete weeks…(Leviticus 23:15-16).

During the period between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot, the Omer is counted each evening, a preparation for the receiving of the Torah on Shavuot. 

The most basic reason for counting is to imitate — or rather, relive — the journey of the Jews who left Egypt. They counted down the days until receiving the Torah. But there is also a deeper reason for the counting: The Hebrew word for counting is sefirah. The same letters also spell the word sapir, to shine (like a “sapphire.”) Each day leading up to receiving the Torah, the Jewish people worked to refine another aspect of their character, to make it shine. 

So, in addition to the actual counting, we are reliving the same spiritual journey. We, therefore, engage in a 49-day process of self-refinement. More specifically, these seven weeks relate directly to the seven specific emotional attributes within every soul, which further subdivides into seven. This offers an opportunity to cleanse another character trait in fine detail until we arrive at the 50th day.

Where we are now

The past three weeks, we focused on the three innate emotional traits. First came chesed (translated as “lovingkindness”), which is our power of attraction. Next came gevurah (translated as “severity”), which is the power of limitation and discipline. This past week involved the power of tiferet (“beauty” or “harmony”), which allows us to balance indiscriminate kindness and giving with judgement, which also manifests as mercy, compassion and empathy. 

This Thursday night targets a new soul power — the first of the three functional attributes known as “netzach” (translated as “victory”). These qualities are not as widely discussed, and more complex to define. To explain the specific function of netzach, let’s explore a seemingly separate topic: 

Why do people follow sports with such interest and passion? Why does the outcome of a game have such an emotional effect on certain people? And why the fascination with top athletes and sports icons?

Primal pleasures

Growing up, I heard my father provide an academic explanation for the widespread interest in professional sports, resulting in teams becoming billion-dollar businesses. Sports, he explained, is a substitute for war. Watching athletes battle for victory on the big stage is a safer outlet for our primal thirst for conquest and combat. But I never found that answer complete.

On the one hand, the pleasure of sports is acquired, not instinctive. First someone must learn the basic rules of the game to appreciate it. But after that, choosing a side to pull for is natural. Even small children pick their favorite teams or player and follow their progress with keen interest. 

For the youth, hero-worship of famous athletes may stem from an admiration for their physical prowess. Yet this aspect alone doesn’t explain why the outcome of a game matters so much. Perhaps there is a feeling of belonging, a subconscious sense that when “your team” (usually from your hometown) wins, you win. 

Complex pleasures

The excitement for the game becomes more sophisticated with age — analysis of schemes and strategies, the draft and salary cap decisions — but the core pleasure remains. One only needs look at all the latest spectacular stadiums filled to capacity, annual Super Bowl parties, or bars packed with pumped-up screaming fanatics decked in their teams paraphernalia to recognize how this form of entertainment awakens the same emotions of a child.

Some refined adults claim that they enjoy the artistry, the pursuit of perfection within narrowly defined boundaries. Like all forms of entertainment, sports offer a temporary escape from the pressures of life. Yet there is something different about sports than other forms of entertainment, a quality that films and music cannot offer: the combination of competition and unpredictability. 

In other words, the attraction is not simply the display of supreme ability — power, speed, skill and grace — or the element of surprise. It is the tension between two evenly matched opponents, and a setting for them to prove who is the best. A rivalry brings out the best in each side as they are willing to lay in all on the line — their skills and heart — to bring home the trophy.

When you take this blend of struggle, sacrifice, and willpower and combine it with elite skill and entertainment, sports becomes much more than a game. It is a microcosm of life, a vision of an opponent trying to prevent you from accomplishing a goal, and the need to dig deep and bring all your resources to the table to succeed.

The mystical side of sports

In the Jewish mystical model, every experience or emotion taps a different soul power. A sentimental character who enjoys watching romance movies, for example, activates the attribute of chesed (loving-kindness). Someone that is entertained by violence, is appealing to gevurah (strength and justice). Seen in this context, sports stimulate the trait of netzach (victory). 

Netzach is the inner voice that refuses to be kept down. It is the force that enables you to rise and meet any obstacle with confidence. Netzach embraces challenge and is willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish a goal.

The elite athlete is the physical personification of this power. Or from another angle, everyone has the quality; athletes just use it more. And perhaps people enjoy the visual representation of this trait, whether because they themselves have it in a different area, or they wished they possessed it more.

Are you competitive?

Competitive instinct begins at a young age and is often cultivated by parents who want to give their child every outlet to develop his or her talents. Now, when someone walks on the court or sports field and thinks, I want to beat my opponent — is that a positive characteristic? 

As long as this feeling doesn’t lead to meanness
or unsportsmanlike conduct, our society embraces highly competitive individuals. True, the root of competitiveness can be an ugly character, pure ego — but this drive to overcome obstacles, if applied in the right context, can be a virtue that enables our greatest achievements.

The tension inside us

Everyone struggles and faces different internal and external obstacles. It may be a learning challenge, an addiction, a negative personality trait, or even the feeling of complacency that comes with success. In the moral realm, there is no relying on reputation: you must earn victories daily with how you think, act and treat people. 

There is also a team component to our personal lives. Winning in marriage, creating a family environment, advancing in career, and maintaining physical and mental health are all crucial elements where the cost of failing is high. Managing the demands of these seeming separate
and competing responsibilities requires that they work in harmony and ultimately enhance each other. 

But all that is only the psychological challenge. The real battle — the ingredient that makes it all jell together — is mastering the deeper struggle. Inside every person there are two equally matched entities leading to spiritual success and failure. This custom-built opponent is a fierce competitor. In literature, it is portrayed as “the human heart in conflict with itself,” as William Faulkner stated in his Nobel Prize speech. In Talmudic terms, it’s a fight between two opposing inclinations (tractate Brachot 54a). In philosophical and Kabbalistic language (Shaar HaKedushah and Etz Chayim) it is a battle of two distinct souls which vie for control over “the small city” — the person’s consciousness and decisions. 

But this struggle has a purpose. Just as a rivalry brings out the well of hidden resources inside each player, so too the inner opponent leads us to be our best. If we can activate the power of netzach, our competitive instinct and channel this energy inward, it may be the difference between falling short or fulfilling our ultimate dreams and purpose. 

Enhancing this innate power within is this week’s task.

Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.

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