Life’s Brass Ring
July 30, 2021
By Rob Goldberg

Hope springs eternal this week with the opening of NFL training camp and the arrival of the Olympic games.  For 32 NFL teams and each Olympian, obtaining the brass ring of their respective sport defines success.  Everything else is just “second” place and for these athletes, their coaches, teammates, family members and fans, satisfaction in a “job well done” isn’t good enough.

Judaism may argue the opposite: that just making the team defines success. Our tradition has long embraced the notion of samayach b’chelko, a phrase that means being satisfied with one’s portion. Whether we are speaking of our home, family, or profession, our goal in life is to embrace the success we have achieved even if we may have fallen short of attaining lofty goals. In the context of the Olympics, this notion in Judaism would argue that the hard work that it took just to make it to Tokyo and represent one’s country, is “good enough.”

The Torah portion we read this Shabbat, Eikev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25) contains a powerful three-word sequence that frames both this perspective and forms the basis of the Birkat Hamazon, the blessings recited after a meal: v’achalta (eat), v’savata (satisfied) and u’vayrachta (bless). The full sentence reads: “You shall eat and be satisfied and shall bless the LORD your God for the good land which He has given you” (Deuteronomy 8:10). On the surface, this verse indicates that once you are sated from eating, you must express thanks to the Source of all nourishment: God.  But on a deeper level, it suggests something captured so succinctly by Ben Zoma, a rabbinic sage of the Mishnaic period, who wrote: “Who is rich? Those who are happy with their portion.” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 32a).

We all know that to be contented with one’s lot in life is easier said than done, particularly when we are continually bombarded by messaging that we’ll only be happy if we obtain a smarter phone, a more luxurious car or a bigger house.  Samson Raphael Hirsch, the 19th-century German rabbi who sought to bridge traditional practice and Enlightenment thinking, taught that just as we should be satisfied with our portion of earthly goods, we should also rejoice in the measure of intellectual talent with which we have been blessed. In other words, one should derive satisfaction from the knowledge that he has made good use of his intellectual capabilities.

This could apply to athletes as well, that their satisfaction should reflect not the number of medals, awards or rings they achieve, but from the knowledge that they used their talent to the best of their ability.

As a child, my father would always remind me to “do my best.” Unlike some of my friends, I never was rebuked for not getting better grades as long as I put in the effort.  My father’s kind reminder was deeply Jewish and I would argue based in part on the powerful three-word phrase in this week’s Torah portion – v’achalta, v’savata and u’vayrachta – that the joy is in the doing and expressing gratitude, not always in grabbing the brass ring.

Rob Goldberg is the Executive Director and CEO of Buffalo Jewish Federation.

Life's Brass Ring - Jewish thought of the week graphic