Do you remember the commercial where a father and his son are walking back to their car after a football game? It is the one where the son’s team has just won the championship. It is the one where the dad sees that his son’s trophy has a label that says “Participant.” It is the one where the father thinks to himself, “But they won! They won every game! They’re the champions!” So he peels off the participant label on the kid’s trophy and, in its place, he writes “Champs.”
According to the people who test advertising effectiveness, this commercial has turned out to be one of the most popular of those on the air. Perhaps it is because it flies in the face of our over-the-top politically correct culture. It challenges those who are afraid of rewarding the few at the expense of the many. It challenges those of us who go out of our way to never make anyone feel bad. It challenges those who believe that we do not play sports to win or lose but rather to do our best.
The people who made this commercial are saying that this point of view is nonsense. What is sports about if we do not work hard to win? That ad wants us to know that competing to win is the best way to try to improve ourselves.
That is one point of view, but there is clearly a debate going on about this. One argument is that we want every child to feel good and special and to be rewarded for his or her efforts. The other argument is that those who excel should receive greater rewards for their successes. Both arguments have merit; is one more correct than the other?
Our Torah offers a very interesting Jewish point of view on this subject in telling what happened when Yitzchak was in his last days of life. He wanted to give his blessing to his first-born son, Esav. To prepare for this reward, Esav went out to hunt for his father’s favorite meal. When he returned, Yitzchak would bless him.
But Rivka, Yitzchak’s wife and the mother of the twin boys Esav and Yaakov, had a different idea. Where did she get this idea? It seems that God had told her that Yaakov should receive the blessing in order to carry on the Covenant that God had made with Avraham.
What did Rivka do? She helped Yaakov dress up as Esav in order to trick Yitzchak into giving Esav’s blessing to Yaakov. As we know, the plan worked.
But soon thereafter, Esav returned with Yitzchak’s favorite meal and Yitzchak trembled, realizing he had made an error because of trickery. It is with this realization that we hear Esav cry out, “Don’t you also have a blessing for me, too, Father?”
It is hard to miss the great sympathy the Torah had for Esav at that moment. On the other hand, the Torah makes it crystal clear that Esav was not the right person to be charged with protecting the future of God’s Covenant. Esav is described as a person who, while talented in one area, did not have God at his center as did Yaakov. Esav did not prioritize as did Yaakov. Esav clearly had the brawn, while his twin brother had the brains. They both had heart, but Esav’s focus was completely on himself, while Yaakov lived his life for others. Even so, the Torah wants us to know that Esav was a human being with feelings; a person who God also cared about.
Most of us feel Esav got a raw deal. Esav must have thought his parents loved Yaakov more. We cannot help but feel a bit sorry for him when Esav asks Yitzchak, “Don’t you have a blessing for me, too?” It is as if he is saying, “My brother may be smarter or better looking or more charming, but I need attention, too. I am somebody, you know!”
The most important lesson we should get from this is that, if we are looking for what we think is fair, we will be very disappointed. One thing we must all learn is that there is no such thing as fair anywhere in the pages of the TANAKH. The TANAKH declares that the winner has the right to take all when God is concerned.
While there is no such thing as fair, the Torah is telling us that ambition is good, as long as God’s big picture remains in focus. The ones who are the best innovators, who follow their curiosity and intellect, who are willing to fight to be leaders, those will be the winners. The Torah teaches us that every society needs those kinds of people. It is the best and the brightest who will lead us into the future. That is why that father and son commercial is so powerful. It is telling us that, like Rivka, we must help our children unlock their promise and their potential so that they will succeed in their future. Teaching children to ask, “What about me?” is teaching them to be like everyone else; to blend in. This is the opposite of what our Torah is teaching us.
There is no question that each person is important in ways that others might not be. That is why each person, regardless of age, should be nurtured and encouraged and supported to achieve beyond what he or she believes is his or her best. Striving to do one’s best turns out to be self-limiting; striving to be the best opens up so many more avenues for great achievement, regardless of age.
That is why Esav’s question tears at our hearts. “Dad, do you only have one blessing?” The answer proved to be, “Of course I also have a blessing for you. It is a special blessing so that you will achieve great things as well.”
The lesson is clear. It is not so horrible to give every kid a trophy. It is horrible, however, to not make sure the trophies are appropriate for every kid. The champs should get trophies that reward their accomplishments just as those who participated should be acknowledged. This is a very important distinction.
As a parent of more than one child, I often asked myself how to treat each child equally. According to our Torah reading, the answer is simple: we cannot and we should not even try. Each child has a different personality, a different potential, a different set of talents and abilities. That is why each child needs a different approach. We all know that this is not easy, but, according to the Torah, it is the right thing to do.
Yes, Yitzchak does bless Esav, but, unlike Yaakov, Esav was never destined to become Yisrael. On the other hand, Esav became a great leader in his own right, and the ancestor of a strong and powerful kingdom.
Just as God had two very different plans for Esav and Yaakov, so does God have plans for everyone, including you and me. God breathed life into each of us for a reason. While we may never know our individual purpose, we should always thank God for giving us the greatest reward of all, the opportunity to live and to love and to know each other.
As we celebrate the High Holy Days, the Days of Awe, may this new year bring us all blessings from God. May we bless each other as we support each other in performing many acts of kindness. May we be honest and compassionate. May we make this a better world by being nice to each other. What better blessing could any of us have?
As I write this final d’var Torah, my wife Kit and I have moved to our new home in Massachusetts. It has been, and will always be, a privilege and an honor to have served the Rhode Island community for so many years. We will miss so many of you, we appreciate your support, your friendship, your blessings and the love that we shared together. We ask God to bless you all in the new year as we wish you a shanah tovah tikatevu (a sweet and blessed New Year).
RICHARD E. PERLMAN is the rabbi at Temple Ner Tamid, in Peabody, Massachusetts.