8 February 2008
2 Adar I 5768
For those of us who are loyal members of our tribe (the Boston/New England sports fan tribe, that is), this week started off roughly. I keep coming back, however, to an idea that I have been contemplating for years now – the spirituality of losing.
During my first year of college I played at the bottom of the ladder on an outstanding squash team that nearly won the national championship. Our seven seniors and five all-Americans had never won a national championship, and, after an amazing season, our last match of the season – which would decide the national championship – came down to one player’s final game, which came down to the final point of a tiebreaker. Our player, one of the leaders of our team and a role model for many of us, was playing with a fever. Hundreds of fans were crammed into the gallery watching the match; all of my teammates and I were holding hands. We were one point away. The other team’s player served the ball and my teammate returned it . . . straight into the ground. Many of us broke into tears as my teammate knelt with head in hands on the court and our seniors watched their last chance slip away.
It seemed like the pain would not go away, but in our team meeting after the match, I experienced a sense of love and commitment between our players that I think one only feels in moments of profound loss and disappointment. It is easy to celebrate and to support each other after a victory. In the face of defeat, however, I felt our team’s spirit more strongly than ever.
Two years later, I had a similar experience. I received one of my summer camp’s highest honors, the opportunity to lead a colorwar team of 125 campers and counselors for a week of intense competition. After weeks of heightened preparation, our team members – from seven to fifteen year olds – poured their hearts into every event. The day before the end of colorwar, it became clear to me that our team would not win. I remember preparing to address the team, and being struck by an overwhelming sense that we were meant to lose. This sounds like a strange rationalization. As a lover of competition, I revel in the glory of victory and I strongly dislike losing. But this was second time that losing connected me with the spiritual significance of what our team had accomplished: we were strong, we worked hard, we cared about each other, and we found such meaning in our striving to win, that we had transcended the outcome of the competition. It was this transcendence that I felt as I looked into their tear-filled eyes, even in the face of defeat.
This week’s parsha, with its oft quoted line “v’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham” (“And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them”) sheds light on my experiences. The spirituality of losing is not about the old cliché “it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game” (which I’m not sure makes anyone feel better about losing!). Rather, I am talking about the experience of being part of a team that, through the contributions, the dedication, the hard work of its members, becomes a sacred community. B’nei Yisrael are instructed to build a structure out of raw materials that “their hearts moved them to bring;” it seems to me that the experience of building – which transforms a group of passionate, dedicated individuals into an interdependent community with a purpose greater than themselves – is more meaningful than the physical structure it produces. God will, in fact, dwell “in them,” in the builders, in the midst of the sacred community.
Maybe “winning it all,” which is its own kind of spiritual experience, actually diminishes our capacity to feel the spiritual significance of a team that has become a sacred community, bonded together by its members’ devotion to something greater than themselves. Maybe losing forces us to see that the deep and meaningful experience of team is actually a more lasting product than the thrill of victory itself. Maybe losing the Superbowl did, in fact, complete the Patriots’ “perfect season.”
May we find joy in our victories and meaning in our defeats. And may we be blessed with opportunities to experience the power of team, of working passionately with others for a purpose greater than ourselves, and of dedicating ourselves fully to the building of a sacred community. This is, after all, what our work at Gann is all about.
Rabbi Marc Baker