Twelve Trapped Soccer Players, Moses, and the Cities of Refuge
Perfection has a way of grabbing our attention: A Triple Crown. A 4.0 grade point average. An undefeated season. And, this week, the inspiring, odds-defying rescue of all 12 Thai boys and their coach from entrapment in a dark, dank cave while the whole world watched.
So because Jewish tradition teaches us to look for connections and relevance between events of the day and the weekly Torah portion, I will posit that, as strange as it may seem, there is a connection between the miraculous salvation of the Thai Wild Boar soccer team and this week’s Torah portion of Matos-Massai.
Even many of us with little formal Jewish education know that Moses, the greatest person in Jewish history, was not able to accomplish every goal. The man who liberated a slave nation from Egyptian bondage and helped the Almighty give His people the Torah was still shut out of the Promised Land. And this week, we read of how Moses had been able to secure only three of the six cities of refuge that he had been pledged to secure. His resume, as he approached his final days, was incomplete — but perhaps that is one of the greatest lessons of all.
So what is the connection? For me, it is that we must not allow the ideal of perfection and the fear of not fully succeeding to discourage us from taking those initial steps that might benefit others or ourselves.
Of course, those behind the cave rescue had no choice but to try. And, in fact, the attempt was not “perfect” — because one of the brave members of the rescue team did perish. But too often, in situations that are hardly life and death, we may shrink from striding forward for fear of not reaching perfection.
The example of Moses teaches us that our approach should not be that it’s either everything or nothing. The leader who spoke face to face with God, delivered the Ten Commandments, and began the cities of refuge project also never witnessed their completion. Is his impact diminished because Joshua needed to finish the task? Should we not commit to bettering the world by performing mitzvot because we believe we are unable to perform all 613?
A contemporary and remarkable illustration of this Jewish belief that we should not shrink from trying because the attainment of perfection will be difficult — or impossible — comes to us from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory. In 1979, the Rebbe responded to a letter from the chair of a council on what was then called mental retardation asking for advice on how to deal with the care and education of mentally challenged children. His view was visionary.
In his lengthy response, the Rebbe advised that a social worker, teacher, or anyone else dealing with such individuals should start from the basic premise that the challenge in each case was only temporary, and that in due course it could certainly be improved. He reasoned that this optimistic approach would yield greater success and, moreover, that advancements in the field were continually being made.
He proceeded to suggest numerous practical points about enhancing the effectiveness of teams, trainees, group homes, summer camps, and many other avenues to uplift mentally challenged individuals, while making a particular case for the valuable role of Jewish education in reaching Jewish individuals.
In other words, in addition to sharing an astoundingly far-seeing perspective for a “non-professional,” the Rebbe was espousing the view that we should not allow our doubts about success to dampen our resolve.
Along these same lines, today — in the era of “every kid gets a trophy” — sociologists and psychologists advise us to give our children a different message than the one children have been hearing for years. Historically, parents have routinely praised their children with “Good job!” or “I am so proud of your grade on that test.” Instead, we are now taught to inspire our children with “Great effort!” or “I am so proud of how you studied for that test.”
The biblical commentator Kli Yakar (Rabbi Solomon Luntschitz, 1550-1619) pointed out that although Moses’ life was filled with monumental accomplishments, the Torah refers to his incompletion of a project as a great lesson to all of us. According to Kli Yakar, despite our imperfections and lack of visible success, when we continue to strive to attain a higher level, we continue to add to our storehouse of good deeds.
Breaking records and surpassing goals are indeed great victories and times for jubilation. Judaism, however, has never been obsessed with the stardom of finishing in first place, but rather with exerting our own personal best. Our measure of triumph has always been overcoming our inhibitions about making the effort, not achieving perfection. The ultimate perfection that we all yearn for is the coming of the Moshiach — may it be very soon.
Rabbi Areyah Kaltmann is the executive director of Chabad of Columbus and the Lori Schottenstein Chabad Center.