Stiff Competition

“May the One who causes His Name to dwell in this house cause love and brotherhood, peace and camaraderie to dwell among you.”

BT Brakhot 12a


            This small prayer for grace and love is tucked into the early pages of the first volume of the Talmud. Until I came across it in the daily cycle of Talmud study, I had never before heard of it. It is not a custom to say it today; it was written in very particular circumstances and recited on a very specific occasion. In the days of the Temple, there were 24 cohorts of priests – cohanim – who served for approximately 2 separate weeks a year each before setting abck to their homes. The new watch would come for Shabbat and then the change of the guard would occur on Shabbat. All of the tasks of one cohort would transition to the next. The incoming priests were given this blessing to inform their service.

            It would be wonderful if we all began our work with a blessing. Imagien finding the language that enabled and inspired us to work harder or care more or devote more time and attention to others. This must have been an extraordinary changing of the guard and the ultimate statement of excellent succession planning: the group leaving blesses the group arriving, offerin ghtem the confidence and trust to continue sacred work.

            The idea of conferring a spirit of peace and love on the priests makes sense since it was they who blessed the people, and the blessing that they recited before blessing the people ended with the word “love.” We give blessings from a point of love. If that love was deficient then the priest is exempt; if, for example, a priest lost a beloved family member and was in mourning, he was exempt from this blessing. His own sadness and understnadbale self-absorption prevented him from conferring complete love on others.

According to the Maharsha, however, this blessing may have been inspired by a less noble sentiment. In the days of the Temples, there were more preists than there were tasks and some roles were more public than others. The choice of which particular priest would perform which function was based on stiff competition. We have a number of legendary battles among priests recorded in the Talmud, and they did not all resolve themselves pleasantly. If you thought the Olympics was a trial of talent and gumption…

In the new Koren  Steinsaltz Talmud, the Maharsha is cited as explainging the blessing as a wishful hope that “the incomign watch would be blessed with brotherhood and peace” precisely because enmity and envy developed among them around the anxieities fo competition. It raises the interstign question about the value of competition.

Today, many want to minimize the importance of competition by letting everyone win and wishing grades did not matter. This has not always had a positive result either, reducing the drive for indidivual success and often leaving children ill-prepared for a universe where competition is a constant. Instead, the priests of old understood that competition could bring out masterful performance and that the desire to best another could energize the sacred ritual lfie of Temple worship. Instead of elminaitng competition, the priests blessed it, asking that those in service give the best of themselves but retain a spirit of love and camaraderie because allw as done to bring greater love into God’s house.

The tension between personal excellence and communal peace