Love Your Teammate as Yourself: A Lesson from the Olympics

February 21, 2018

I previously wrote how Nancy Kerrigan was one of my heroes. I’ve always found it inspirational how she bounced back from the injury she received in her unprovoked attack, taking the silver medal. But it’s easy to be inspired by the winners. Sometimes, however, we can be inspired by those who “also ran.” A beautiful story from the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea provides the opportunity to be inspired by an Olympian who didn’t bring home a medal.

As American freestyle skier Brita Sigourney prepared for her final Olympic run on Tuesday, she faced a dilemma: her friend Annalisa Drew was at that point in third place. If Sigourney outperformed her teammate, it would leave Drew with no chance of claiming the bronze.

While certainly an emotional conflict, at the end of the day, this was no real dilemma. The answer was clear. This was the Olympics, for which Sigourney had trained for years. To perform at anything but her best wouldn’t be fair – not to herself, nor to her team or to the American public.

When Sigourney reached the bottom of the pipe, Drew was waiting there for her. Drew’s score had been 90.8. The two teammates stood next to each other, awkwardly waiting for Sigourney’s score to appear on the board. When it finally appeared, it was 91.60. Sigourney had taken the bronze. The two shared a long hug and Drew told Sigourney that she loved her and was proud of her.

I doubt very much that Drew is Jewish but this story is one of the finest examples of v’ahavta l’reiecha kamocha that I can recall.

V’ahavta l’reiecha kamocha – “Love your neighbor as yourself” – is one of the 613 mitzvos (Leviticus 19:18). In many ways, this is the seminal mitzvah of the Torah. In the Sifra, Rabbi Akiva calls this obligation the “great principle of the Torah.” In Talmud Shabbos (31a), Hillel paraphrases this idea, saying that we should not do to others that which we ourselves dislike, calling that the entirety of Torah. Most world religions have adopted similar principles, often referred to as “the golden rule.”

Loving our neighbors as ourselves is an idea we all get behind but it doesn’t usually pan out so well. Part of the problem is that we have to overcome our human nature, which tends to be self-centered. The other part of the problem is that we don’t really understand what it means to love another as we love ourselves.

If we truly love the other person as much as we love ourselves, then we would always be happy for a friend’s good fortune and never selfishly wish that it were our own. We may think we do that (or like to think that we do that) but most of us probably don’t. Let’s illustrate what it truly means to love another as one’s self.

I’ll give you an example that could have come from a sitcom. Imagine that you have two children and that you love them equally (as parents tend to do). Now imagine that these two offspring of yours are both running for student body president. One of them will win the election while the other will invariably lose. Whatever the outcome, you are going to feel bad for one child but sincerely happy for the other. Your emotions will be equally strong no matter which way things turn out.

Now take your kids out of the equation. Replace that scenario with one of you and your friend vying for the same scholarship, or the same promotion, or holding tickets for the same raffle. If our friend wins, would we be as happy for him as we would be for ourselves? Conversely, if our friend loses, would we be as disappointed for him as we would for ourselves? I think that most of us are not yet at a place where we could honestly say yes. It’s something to strive for.

Our Biblical exemplar for this mitzvah is Jonathan, son of King Saul and best friend of David. If not for David, Jonathan would have been the next king. This enraged Saul (who sought to kill David) but not Jonathan. Just the opposite! Jonathan tried to calm his father down and helped David to escape Saul’s wrath, even acknowledging David’s claim to the throne (see I Samuel 19-20). Jonathan wasn’t averse to being king, he was just as happy for his friend’s good fortune as he would have been for his own.

Now let’s get back to Brita Sigourney, who edged out Drew, costing her the bronze. I don’t think Sigourney’s failure to throw the Olympics so that her friend would win demonstrates a shortcoming of v’ahavta l’reiecha kamocha on her part. Consider the following pair of halachos: (1) one person is not allowed to kill another to save his own life because who says your life is more important? (Sanhedrin 74a); (2) If two people are lost in the desert and there’s only enough water for one, the owner of the canteen may not sacrifice himself by giving it away (Baba Metzia 62a). We don’t assume that our own lives are more important but we also don’t assume that the other person’s life is more important! Sometimes the circumstances favor us, sometimes they favor the other guy.

The same is true with v’ahavta l’reiecha kamocha. We should love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves, not more than. If you and your friend are both up for the same slot in your kids’ school, the same promotion or the same Olympic medal, no one says you should “take a dive.” Sometimes circumstances will favor you and other times they will favor your friend. The trick to loving another person is not in surreptitiously sacrificing all of your own opportunities so that they win but in sincerely rejoicing with them in their own earned successes.