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On winning and losing

Joshua, as I am sure you are aware, this week Tal Flicker won Gold in Judo at the Grand Slam competition in Abu Dhabi. Like all the other Israeli athletes in the tournament, Flicker was allowed to compete but forbidden to display an Israeli flag. This is contrary to the rules and explicit directives of the International Judo Federation, as was the refusal of the organizers to play the Hatikvah, the Israeli National Anthem, when Flicker ascended the winner’s podium to receive his gold medal. Instead, while the anthem of the International Judo Federation was played, Flicker quietly sang the Hatikvah to himself. As he said afterwards, “The anthem they played of the world federation was just background noise; I was singing Hatikvah from my heart.”

Joshua, I mention this to you not just because of your prowess in judo – we all hope to see you singing the Singapore national anthem at the Olympics one day when you win a gold medal of your own. Nor do I mention it solely because of its connection to your Torah portion, that you read with such accomplishment this morning; little did Abraham know that more than three thousand years later, God’s promise would be fulfilled and his descendants would be so strong and wily that they would include world-beating judokas. But I mention it in the context of the discussions in class that we have been having with your loving parents, Georges and Parmi, about looking at the world in black and white, and seeing a spectrum in between – not just grey, but every colour that exists under the sun.

A black and white world would not have seen Israelis competing in Abu Dhabi. Either the organizers would have banned them entirely, or the IJF would have banned the organizers from hosting an event that was not open to all. Equally the Israeli competitors or judo association could have proudly decided not to participate in an environment that was hostile to them. But – none of these things happened. Clearly we would prefer to see harmony between nations; we know that any enmity between Muslims and Jews is usually more political than religious - the two religions being close brothers with the shared patriarch from your Torah portion: Ibrahim or Abraham. Yet amid the complex politics of today’s Middle East, a solution was found that enabled Israeli athletes to compete in the UAE, and to thrive in their competitions, and to succeed and demonstrate with dignity, against all the odds, that they can celebrate victory in such a situation. Tal Flicker and the Israeli team deserve all our congratulations.

Joshua, you know what it takes to be a winner: the practice, the attention to detail and the dedication. The skill that takes years to hone, the fight with your nerves, even the element of luck that’s involved when you’re out there on the mat. You’ve applied this to the Torah portion too. Working hard, eradicating those mistakes, banishing your hesitations, above all practicing and practicing until you can produce a confident and fluid performance.

But you also know that losing is as much a part of competition as winning is, even if you do not wish to encounter this feeling too often. And yet – it is also by failing that we grow stronger, not just by learning from our mistakes, but also from experiencing that pain of failure that we do not wish to feel again. In the business world there has been much discussion of the saying, “Fail fast, fail often” – in recent years it became such a mantra for start-ups that since 2009 there have been FailCons, originating in San Francisco but since held around the world. For those of you, who like me live in ever need of some business-speak deconstruction: a FailCon is a conference devoted to the subject of failure as a business experience.

Abraham is a good example of someone who fails frequently. In the part of your Torah portion, Lech Lecha, that you read for us this morning, he ventures to the land that God shows him, and immediately encounters such a famine there – the failure of his and others’ crops – that he decides to up sticks once more and head for another country, Egypt. And there he also fails to adapt to the law and customs of the Egyptians – passing off his wife as his sister draws the ire of the Pharaoh himself, who kicks them both out of Egypt, and he is forced to travel back to Canaan and build up his business and his family life there once more. As his story unfolds, Abraham’s woeful failures in his interpersonal relations are on show as well. And yet, he remains our patriarch, the first Jew, and also the patriarch of two of the world’s major religions, Christianity and Islam, as well. Judged by history, Abraham was a resounding success.

I have Yoni to thank for the insight that for all Abraham achieved, his epic journeys from his homeland to the promised land, leaving behind his family to fulfil his destiny, it was not his success alone. Throughout, he was accompanied by his wife Sarah. We are told much about her thoughts – we know her mostly from her sardonic laugh when she was told she would have a baby at a late age, and from the jealousies that are recorded in the Abrahamic household. But – nonetheless – Abraham was not alone. I am sure you know the phrase “behind every great man is a great woman” – and how these days it feels a little jaded as we prefer a more gender-equal model that allows for the successes of both men and women – but it does show that even in the Bible, this supporting role was at least somewhat acknowledged.

Joshua, as you yourself travel in life, we all hope that you record many successes. Learn from your parents, Georges and Parmi, and hold their examples dear. You have a strong heritage, and many supporters in the Jewish community and beyond. As we celebrate your Bar Mitzvah today, may this always be a day to remember for you, that moment when you changed from a child to a responsible adult, when you stood up to be counted, taking your part in the heritage of Abraham, who himself stood up so many years before.

Shabbat shalom!

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