This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Cutthroat Competition*

News Item:

January 1994--U.S. figure skating champion Nancy Kerrigan is clubbed on the knee by a henchman associated with rival skater Tonya Harding.

Imagine this picture: Two eager young men posed nose-to-nose as they run towards the finish line. They are approaching the last tense centimeters of the race as one of the youths begins to feel that he is falling behind. In desperation he recalls that they are now ascending a ramp, and that his rival is precariously close to the edge. A slight push and the other racer falls over the edge with a broken leg.

The above incident sounds as if it could have come from the pages of a daily newspaper. In fact its setting was neither a race-track nor an Olympic arena. It is described in the Mishnah (Yoma 2:1), and took place in the Temple in ancient Jerusalem as two priests strove to be the first to reach the sacrificial altar. The prize that awaited the winner was not a gold medal and not a lucrative contrast endorsing sports equipment. The glittering attraction that provoked such violence was nothing less than the privilege of cleaning off the ashes from the altar in accordance with the command recorded in Leviticus 6:3.

The original reason behind the establishment of this competition was to make the commandment seem more attractive, and to provide the young priests with an opportunity to give physical expression to their eagerness in serving God. As often happens, the primary purpose became obscured and the competition itself became an overriding obsession to be won even at the cost of injuring one's fellow.

Things could get even worse.

A similar incident is recorded in the pages of the Talmud, except that in that race the losing runner did not satisfy himself with injuring his opponent. This time he pulled out a knife and stabbed the other priest in the heart. To add insult to the injury, before the victim had expired his father appeared on the scene and began to express his concern for the possible ritual defilement of the knife!

Once again, the dimensions of this ancient tragedy teach us the truth of Ecclesiastes' observation that "there is nothing new under the sun," and that sometimes there are no lengths that people will not go to in their ambition to be a winner.

The Jewish sages of that time were shocked into the realization of how skewed some people's priorities can become in the presence of a competitive challenge. They immediately abolished the race and instituted a lottery for the assigning of jobs in the Temple worship.

To the best of my recollection, our sources do not relate whether there were frequent attempts to cheat the lottery.

But matters were not always so bad. The Talmud tells of other occasions when people, especially children, were encouraged to compete for the right to perform a mitzvah. For example, according to the Mishnah (Pesahim 8:3) it was customary for parents to urge their children to hurry along on the Passover pilgrimage by offering a share in the paschal sacrifice to the first one to reach Jerusalem. I imagine that the alternative to such a practice would have been a persistent chorus of whining "Are we almost there yet?" In this case, the results seem to have been more wholesome, and the triumphant child would generously share his portion with the remaining siblings.

And just for the record: The Talmud informs us that sometimes it was the girls came out ahead of the boys in the race to Jerusalem.


This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

[1]
First Publication: Jewish Free Press, March 3 1994.