Competition in the Name of Excellence is Divine
“May the One who causes His Name to dwell in this house cause love and brotherhood, peace and camaraderie to dwell among you.” — BT Brakhot 12a
This small prayer for grace and love is tucked into the early pages of the first volume of the Talmud. Until I came across it in the daily cycle of Talmud study, I had never heard of it. It is not a custom to say it today; it was written in very particular circumstances and recited on a very specific occasion. In the days of the Temple there were 24 cohorts of priests—cohanim—who served for approximately two separate weeks a year before setting back to their homes. The new watch would come for Shabbat and then the changing of the guard would occur on Shabbat. All of the tasks of one cohort would transition to the next. The incoming priests were given this blessing by the outgoing priests to inform their service.
It would be wonderful if we all began our work with a blessing. Imagine finding the language that enabled and inspired us to work harder or care more or devote more time and attention to others. This must have been an extraordinary moment, and the ultimate statement of excellent succession planning: the group leaving blesses the group arriving, offering them the confidence and trust to continue sacred work.
The idea of conferring a spirit of peace and love on the priests makes sense since it was they who blessed the people, and the blessing that they recited to the people ended with the word “love.” They gave blessings from a repository of love. If that love was deficient then the priest was exempt; if, for example, a priest lost a beloved family member and was in mourning, he was exempt from this blessing. His own sadness and understandable self-absorption prevented him from conferring complete love on others.
According to the Maharsha, Rabbi Samuel Eliezer Edels (1555-1631), however, this blessing may have been inspired by a less noble sentiment. In the days of the Temples, there were more priests than there were tasks and some roles were more public than others. The choice of which particular priest would perform which function was based on stiff competition. We have a number of legendary battles among priests recorded in the Talmud, and they did not all get resolved pleasantly. If you thought the Olympics was a trial of talent and gumption…
In the new Koren Steinsaltz Talmud, the Maharsha is cited as explaining the blessing as a wishful hope that “the incoming watch would be blessed with brotherhood and peace” precisely because enmity and envy developed among them around the anxieties of competition. This raises the interesting question about the value of competition generally.
Today, many want to minimize the importance of competition by letting everyone win and wishing grades did not matter. Alfred Kohn contends in his book No Contest: The Case Against Competition that competition undermines self-esteem, purchases success at the cost of another’s failure and creates anxiety around achievement, in addition to having external measures of evaluation determine inner self-worth. He makes a good case, but it is not the only case.
In 2010, Dave Hibbard and Duane Buhrmester at the University of Texas published a study of competitiveness among adolescents and concluded that competing to win—when it means outperforming others or dominating others—can weaken friendships and also lead to higher levels of loneliness and depression. But competing to excel—to do well and also to be your personal best —contributed to wellbeing and higher self-esteem. Pushing yourself to do better makes you feel better about yourself.
Minimizing the importance of competition can reduce the drive for individual success and often leave children ill prepared for a universe where competition is a constant. Our priests of old understood that competition could bring out masterful performance and that the desire to be one’s best rather than to best another could energize the sacred ritual life of Temple worship. Instead of eliminating competition, the priests blessed it, asking that those in service give the best of themselves while retaining a spirit of love and camaraderie because all was done to bring greater love into God’s house.
Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She is the author of “In the Narrow Places“ (OU Press/Maggid); “Inspired Jewish Leadership,” a National Jewish Book Award finalist; “Spiritual Boredom“; and “Confronting Scandal.”