4 June 2010
22 Sivan 5770
The end of the school year has an incredible and unique energy. Along with the moments of stress and anxiety, there are many moments of inspiration and celebration as we see all our hard work and our students’ learning throughout the year come to fruition. In education it can be hard to measure outcomes, especially when your goals include character and identity formation and developing students’ habits of heart and mind such as sophistication, passion, and inspiration. During the culminating events of the school year—arts performances, celebrations, final exams, graduation—I pay close attention to what I call “mission moments,” places where we see our educational mission vibrant and our students transformed.
One such mission moment is our Sports Banquet, where we celebrate the hard work and accomplishments of the student athletes who have represented Gann in interscholastic athletic competition. This year, one of the coach’s remarks not only inspired me, but also helped me to understand the infamous story of the meraglim (the “scouts”, often translated as the “spies”) in this week’s parsha through a new lens: sports psychology.
Reflecting on his team’s season, our Co-ed Varsity Cross Country coach said, “If you asked me to sum up our season in one word, it would be: perfect. We had a perfect season.” He then described how the team lost most of their races, did not beat teams it had beaten the year before, and did not successfully defend its league title. So why was the team’s season perfect in his eyes? He explained that, in the championship race, the final and most important competition of the year, every one of our runners ran their best race, their fastest time of the season. One of the biggest fears of a coach, he commented, is that his players will not perform at their best when it counts most. And that is exactly what our team did—they worked hard, they improved, and they stepped it up when it mattered most. Perfect.
However, this week’s parsha (Shlach lecha) illustrates a very different kind of performance by the meraglim, whose psychological and spiritual stumbling blocks led to a far from perfect performance. Sent to investigate the land and inhabitants of Israel before B’nei Yisrael was to enter and fulfill its mission of reaching the Promised Land, 10 of the 12 meraglim returned with an extremely discouraging report: the people are mighty, the towns are fortified, the land consumes its inhabitants. In their words, “we were like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we were in their eyes.” (Numbers 13:33)
Despite the positive counter-report and hopeful leadership of Yehoshua and Calev, the community reacted with fear, complaint and despair, lack of faith in God, and lack of faith in themselves, resulting in the punishment that B’nei Yisrael would have to wander forty years in the desert before a new generation would enter the land.
So what does this have to do with our Cross Country team’s perfect season? The fear that overtook the meraglim, including lack of faith in God and lack of faith in themselves, relates to why so many players do not perform when it matters the most: fear of not being perfect. It is so easy to focus on all of the ways things can go wrong, on the extrinsic and intrinsic stumbling blocks that can get in the way of success – whether in a championship game, in an artistic performance, on a final exam, or just in the small tests of everyday life. Obsession with perfection can lead to fear of failure, which, in turn, hinders our ability to take the risks necessary to learn, to discover and actualize our potential, and, ultimately, to perform at our best when it matters the most. When the game was on the line, these 10 meraglim and, consequently, the rest of their “team” were too afraid to step it up. One of my personal coaches always says, “I don’t only coach winners; I coach players.” The story of the meraglim illustrates how a fear of not being a “winner” can cause us not even to be a “player”, and serves as a metaphor for all of life’s challenges, for the difficult realities we face, and the unknowns that lie ahead.
The story of our Cross Country team’s “perfect” season beautifully illustrates Gann’s educational mission and philosophy. “Perfection” is not always about winning, and it’s not always about “A’s”; it is about learning and growing, giving 100% of ourselves, and, through this process, actualizing our potential—as athletes, artists, learners, Jews, and human beings. It is more than where you go to college; it is who you are when you get there.
May we learn from the failures of the meraglim and the successes of our students; may we be blessed to perform at our best when it matters most; but, more importantly, may we have the courage and faith in ourselves to step up, to play our hardest, and to take the risk of living up to our full potential.
Rabbi Marc Baker