| Second Thoughts |

Champions and Also-rans

All of life, not only sports, is a matter of inches


The Atlanta Falcons football team this year is rather mediocre, having so far lost more games than they have won. The sports editor of the Atlanta Journal, perhaps in an effort to comfort the loyal fans, recently pointed out that the team is not so bad. Each Falcons loss, he wrote, was by a very close margin, usually by one field goal, or one touchdown, or because of a fumble at a crucial moment, or a dropped pass that might have given them the victory.

What that writer forgot is that classic sports truism: The difference between excellence and mediocrity in sports is the ability to win close games. It is scant comfort that your team loses by one point. Losing by a small margin only means that the team lacked that extra drive and determination to push ahead.

Sports are a matter of inches. The high fly ball that lands in the bleachers could have been a home run were it not foul by two inches, and so is nothing more than a long, loud strike. The basketball toss that hits the rim but does not go into the hoop has missed just by inches, but is a miss nevertheless. The football team that is two inches short of a touchdown on fourth down must relinquish the ball. Although they almost did it, almost is not good enough. The fact of failure, someone once said, is not affected by the narrowness of the margin. Close doesn’t count. A near miss is still a miss.

What has this to do with Judaism? Everything. The difference between an excellent Orthodox Jew and a mediocre one has similar metrics. Take Reuven and Shimon, for example. Each one is fully observant, attends morning minyan daily, remembers Minchah, bentshes after meals, observes Shabbos and kashrus and mikveh, gives tzedakah. However, Reuven is an excellent Jew and Shimon is mediocre.

Why? Because Reuven has that extra determination to do more than the minimum. When he recites a brachah he takes his time and does not rush it. The difference between the two men is three seconds, but it separates mindfulness from rote. Similarly, when he davens or bentshes, the difference between walking and racing is just a few minutes. He attends a Torah shiur every day. It takes just a few minutes, but he knows that a near miss is still a miss, so he pushes himself not to skip a day. Because just as in sports the difference between a champion and a runner-up place is a matter of inches, so is it in religious life: Nothing dramatic is required, no sacrifices, just a little extra effort — and that can make all the difference.

All of which applies, obviously, not only to our relationship with G-d, but also to relationships with other people: A friendly nod that acknowledges the existence of the other, a happy “good morning” with a smile even when we are under stress, a small courtesy when behind the wheel, a phone call to a shut-in, an unexpected compliment — even to a spouse (who is, incidentally, also a human being). Nothing dramatic; no need to go the extra mile to try to be a mensch. For starters, an extra inch will do.

It is scant comfort that my hometown team has lost all those close ones. But even though football is only a game, it teaches an important lesson about first-place champions and second place. All of life, not only sports, is a matter of inches. Inch forward.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 944)

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