Does Hashem Award Participation Trophies?

Participation Trophies are amongst the things that the internet loves to hate the most. A quick search reveals masses of people with a deep loathing of these tacky plastic awards that have been cluttering up bedroom shelves and mantelpieces for decades.

Perusing op-eds, blogs and memes, I have learned that there is no greater symbol of narcissism. In the hive-mind of the internet, these trophies are an over-hyped, misguided attempt at inflating self importance, all of which has slowly engineered a generation of entitled, whiny millennials. Reading all of this, I must concur – these things are so terrible, one wonders how anyone ever thought it was a good idea. What's not to hate?

I must confess, however, that I don't have much first hand experience. Growing up, I did not get many participation trophies. This is not because my team always won, or because South African sports leagues were so well grounded and down-to-earth.

The reason that I didn't get participation trophies is because I didn't participate. I was an overweight kid and I struggled athletically. My friends would get together to play, and I didn't want to because I wasn't good at it.

Sure, there was that one season of soccer in second grade when my mom begged me to play, hoping (praying?) that somehow I would start to enjoy it. Spoiler alert: I still hated it. But I did get a participation trophy, which I knew I did not deserve. I hated looking at it, and it was quickly shoved to the back of the closet.

In recent years, however, I have some experience from my kids, who are blessedly more athletic than I was. Conclusion: Anyone who has even been given a participation award will know that the entire discussion, all the loathing and rhetoric is silly, for one simple reason:

There's a tiny window of time in which a child is naive enough to appreciate a participation trophy. But the moment they know how to compete, the participation trophy quickly becomes, as one writer called it, “an exquisite shame.” Kids aren't idiots. They know the difference between winning and losing, and we're not fooling anyone.

We might try to trick our kids; telling them “it's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game.” But they all know, only losers say that. Winners know it's all about winning, and losers know that their parents are being disingenuous. As my kids have clearly told me “Abba, everyone knows that winning and losing are not the same, and I wanted to win...”

Critics often note that awarding mere participation is encouraging mediocrity and complacency. They make the leap from little league to academics and from academics to professional careers. I don't buy it. No one has ever met a kid who said “I'm not going to try to win because we're all getting a trophy anyway...”

The opposite, however, is far more common and far more destructive. I have met many children and teens who have given up on a sport, a musical instrument or an academic interest because they didn't feel like their achievements would be meaningful or successful enough.

Even more concerning, I have listened to countless talmidim (and adults) telling me how their history of religious failure has demotivated them into disinterest and disengagement. I've had students tell me that they put on Tefillin everyday since their bar-mitzvah, only to miss one day on vacation, and since then they've missed dozens. “Rebbe, once you break the streak, it's over.”

Let's hone in to an acute example which happened in my Halacha shiur this week. We were reviewing the halachos of Sefiras Ha'Omer; specifically, what to do when you've missed a day of counting. The Shulchan Aruch (אורח חיים תפ״ט) writes that on the subsequent days of Sefira, you should continuing counting, but without a bracha.

All of my students knew that you are no longer able to count with a bracha. None of them, however, knew that they are still obligated to continue counting. We then proceeded to learn that the rationale of the Shulchan Aruch centers around an understanding that all the days of Sefiras HaOmer might be one big mitzvah, in which case, missing a single day means that we've missed out on the whole mitzvah. That's the reason not make a bracha.

But there is another paradigm to consider. Perhaps the Omer is 49 separate mitzvos, and each day has its own independent obligation. In such a case, we should absolutely still be counting the subsequent days.

This second understanding (that every day is a separate mitzvah) is the majority opinion of the Geonim and Rishonim. At the very least, all of the Poskim agree that we should be all counting every day – all be it without a bracha if we missed a day.

I paused the shiur for that thought to sink in. One of the kids raised his hand and said, “So, what you're saying is that everyone agrees that just because I missed a day, it does not mean that I should miss every other day.” “Exactly.”

At this point, one of the guys threw his hands in the air and said “Rebbe! I missed the 5th day and I thought I was out! Now you tell me that I should still be counting?! It's not fair! How come no one ever told this to us before?”

It's a good question, and it's an inditement against our parental and educational systems. Not this specific Halacha, but the general sentiment. We are excellent at conveying the ideal, but we struggle to give appropriate meaning to anything other than total success. Our schools and communities have great programs for smart, successful and motivated kids. What do we offer for children whose skills are just average? How do we ensure that they continue to strive when first place is not a reasonable expectation?

Our problem is not that we award participation trophies. Quite the opposite; we all know that they are shameful and insufficient, and our kids quickly mature to understand that they are meaningless. The real issue that we have no system to appropriately educate the importance of continued participation and engagement when we fall short of the ideal.

This problem is wide reaching. Consider the Yeshiva bochur who loves learning and who can learn a great morning seder, but doesn't have the zitsfleysh to sit for more than those four hours a day. Rather than wasting his time in the Beis Medrash, he skips afternoon and night seder, spending his time on his side hustles, making money and volunteering for a local chessed organization. Is there any value to his being able to sit and learn for four hours? Absolutely. As an adult, learning four hours a day makes you a tzadik, and a schedule of learning, working and volunteering makes you an enviably serious and dedicated Baal HaBayis. But in Yeshivas across the world, that kid is a bum, and will be labeled as such.

We exhibit the same broken mindset when we dismiss opportunities to give tzedaka. We tell ourselves “I'm not the guy. I'm simply not wealthy enough make any real difference”. Of course, $18 is not going to solve anyone's financial crisis. It's not going to build a shul or support a Kollel. But it absolutely makes a difference to the individual who is learning the habit of giving, and it makes a difference to Hashem. Moreover, even tiny contributions from many people will add up over time.

The truth is that an action can be both small and meaningful. But the Yetzer Hara pervades our thoughts at every turn, convincing us to quit unless we're sure that we'll win.

The voices echo in our heads: “I'm not so close to them, they probably won't even notice if I don't pay a shiva call.” “They already got a minyan, no need for me to rush to shul.” “I'm not a doctor, Bikur Cholim is not my thing...” “I've never really been into learning Gemara...” “There's no ways we're ever going to be friends again, no use trying...”

We've noted before, that in order to fight this Yetzer Hara during Sefira, Rabbi Eizikel Safrin (חומש היכל הברכה ג עמ׳ רכ) writes that the custom of Komarna was to continue counting with a bracha even after missing a day. He explains: The drive to give up when you've missed a day is so strong, that we should rule like the majority opinion (against the Shulchan Aruch) and keep counting with a bracha. Recently, I discovered that this was also the opinion of the Divrei Chaim of Tzanz, and possibly the Beis HaLevi as well! (ע׳ מודעים וזמנים ס׳ רפט בשם בעל התורה תמיתה)

It's clear that these Tzadikim were far more concerned with the dangers of non-performance than mediocrity.

All of this is to say that perhaps our paradigm is skewed. We have already successfully created a culture of excellence. We know how to celebrate the winners in sports and in schools, and the kids who have surpassed their are recognized and are motivated to continuing acheieving. We now need to rethink how to encourage those who do not excel. How do we keep ourselves and our kids in the game when we know we are not going to win?

I'd like to suggest that we take a lesson from another sport – one that seems to get it right, at least for me. In the past few years, I have amassed a respectable collection of road running medals. I have never won a race, not even close, but I am proud of each and every one. But those medals are not for participation, they are for perseverance and completion. You only get it if you keep trying. Regardless of your speed, stamina or level of fitness, irrespective of whether you are sprinting or walking, every finisher is awarded a medal, because everyone crossing the finish line has fought their own battle and won. No one is ever ashamed of that victory.

These are kinds of trophies that Hashem awards. The ones that say “This was my struggle, this is where I succeeded.”

As we finished the week of Sefira dedicated to Netzach (victory), Hashem should help us to continue the fight; to win whenever we can, but more importantly, to find the motivation to continue even when we've failed.