The 20th Maccabiah (Jewish Olympic Games) is currently taking place in Israel. South Africa and the USA battled in the rugby final with the USA narrowly winning a thrilling game. Thirty-two years this week, I played rugby for the South African Jewish Rugby Team at the 12th Maccabiah. We won the gold medal and the experience changed my life (see my article at http://www.aish.com/jw/s/Mandela-and-My-Walk-to-Freedom.html )
For this blog posting, I’d like to share a few of the many similarities I’ve found over the years between rugby and Judaism.
LESSON 1. BE PART OF THE TEAM
Playing sport in school in South Africa is very different than here in America. In South Africa, it was a school rule that everybody had to play a summer and winter sport. And each year there were as many teams as there were players. Rugby was the most popular sport in my school by far.
Teams were divided into age groups. So when I was 8, there was the under 8 A team, the under 8 B team, all the way to the under 8 E team. Then there were the under 9’s and under 10’s all the way up to the under 15’s in high school. Above age 15 there were open teams starting at the 8th team going up to the 1st team. That’s close on 50 teams, with 15 players per team – that’s 750 rugby players in the school.
In short, everybody played for a team. And everyone felt part of the school’s rugby program.
It’s the same with Judaism. None of us have to be spectators. We can all be part of a team. We don’t all have to be like Moshe Rabbeinu/ Moses our teacher. Or like Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the leading sages in America last century. Some of us have been given greater talents by G-d than others. Some of us may have only learned about what Judaism means later on in life. All G-d wants us to be, just like each coach on each of the rugby teams wanted of each of their players – Join the team and Be the best that you can be.
LESSON 2. BE PREPARED
Weeks before the rugby season would begin, we would receive the schedule of dates of our games and our opponents. We would study it and discuss it for hours. Our school had a rich tradition of rugby going back over 100 years. Some of the opponents our school had played against for almost that many years. For many of those rivalries the competition had been fierce. So our school’s honor was on the line. Now we were an English school. At the end of the year there was the BIG game! Grey Bloemfontein! The most famous rugby school in the country. Founded by the same person who founded our school, Sir George Grey. Our school was Grey, PE. They were Grey Bloem.
So at the beginning of each week we would check the results of the other teams. Each week we would spend hours discussing tactics for the game ahead. We would run through plays in our head. Night and Day.
We would count the days until our big opponents and always keep a watchful eye on the days remaining until … Grey Bloem!
It’s the same with Judaism. We also have a schedule – with important dates to think of. I’m talking about the holidays. Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot. And the two Big Ones – Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur. We can’t just walk into them, unprepared. We have to think about them weeks, maybe months before. Check the calendar, count the days. Read the machzor/ the prayer book. Learn the special laws of the day. Go through what a successful Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur would look like in our minds. Because if we’re prepared, then we’ve got a much better chance of emerging victorious in our endeavors. Rosh Hashanah is 10 days away. If you haven’t started thinking about it, start now. And be prepared.
LESSON 3. PACE YOURSELF
At the Maccabi Games in 1985, we played three opponents, Israel, the US and Australia and then the top two teams, ourselves and Australia played in the final. That’s four very physically demanding games in 10 days. Rugby is tougher than football in at least this aspect – every player stays on the field the entire game. There is no separate offensive and defensive teams. And each game was played in grueling Israeli summer weather.
It simply was not physically possible to play all four games with full intensity. Each player had to choose key times in the game to exert maximum effort, others where he had to play hard and yet others where he had to slow down. This applied to the team as a whole. The captain would call us together and tell us: “Ok, guys, we’ve got to speed up the game, put pressure on them. Or “Let’s slow the game down.”
To be successful, it wasn’t enough to play each game well. We had to pace ourselves.
It’s the same with Judaism. In a little over 2 months is Rosh Hashanah, 8 days later is Yom Kippur. Then five days later is Sukkot followed by Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. That’s a lot of time spent in shul. To give myself any chance of still having any motivation and concentration by the end, I have to pace myself. I work really hard during Rosh Hashanah. Then I take it easy until Yom Kippur. After Yom Kippur I again slow down in my intensity until Sukkot. Here is where I really have to gauge myself, conserve whatever energy I have, and then use it at the important times, always keeping in mind that there’s gold at the end of it all – Simchat Torah, where the energy of the day carries me.
Stay tuned for part II
The South African Jewish Rugby Team that won the gold medal at the Maccabiah. I’m far left, second row