This week we conclude sefer Vayikra with parshas Bechukosai, which is commonly referred to as the parsha of “tochacha” – rebuke. Why? Because it is full of frightening threats of unimaginable punishment to be meted out to those who brazenly refuse to observe the Torah’s laws. Each curse seems worse than the one before it.
It is curious to note that just after concluding this startling section of tochacha, the parsha abruptly switches to a section dealing with the laws of “Arachin” – the dedication of the value of oneself or another person to the Bais Ha’Mikdash (27:1-8).
This section seems completely misplaced. What relevance could there possibly be between the tochacha & severe punishments - which dominates the rest of the parsha - & the halachos of Arachin?
The "Miracle on Ice" was an ice hockey game during the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, between the USA and the Russian Soviet Union. Tensions regarding that game were particularly high, as it took place during The Cold War.
The Russian hockey team was the clear favorite to bring home the gold medal. In fact, the Russians had won all 4 of the previous Olympics and had beaten the USA in all 12 face-offs between 1960 and 1980, outscoring the Americans 117-26! Simply put, they were virtually unstoppable.
Furthermore, just a week before the 1980 games, in an exhibition game played at Madison Square Garden between the Russians and the USA, the Russians walloped the USA 10-3.
It then became clear to everyone that the Russians would beat the USA in the Olympics and take the gold medal, dealing a crushing blow not just to the USA hockey team, but to the morale of the entire United States as a whole.
USA Coach Herb Brooks was given the impossible task of coaching a bunch of college kids, who were on average only 21 years old (the youngest players in the tournament & in USA Olympic-hockey history at the time*) - to play and beat the Russian team.
What hope did coach Brooks possibly have to bringing the USA to victory?
Coach Brook’s strategy was not just finding the best players, but also, players who could handle tough coaching and having their every failure met with grueling consequences.
You see, Brooks had to select from hundreds of players. In order to make the cut, Brooks decided to do something extremely untraditional: Brooks gave all players who were in the running for the team, a 300-question psychology test that he felt could confirm whether or not they could handle the pressure of receiving grueling consequences for failure, and who would instead of becoming broken by them, become stronger. This element was vital in Brooks’ unique strategy to developing the ultimate team.
How so? Every time that the USA team lost a crushing defeat, coach Herb Brooks afterwards pushed his team to their limits by having them perform a punishing drill known as “Herbies”. “Herbies” - named after the tough coach – was literally endless sprints that pushed the athletes to their absolute limit. Even after doing such sprints countless times, with the players at the brink of physical exhaustion and many throwing up from the impossible work, Brooks would just blow his whistle and yell, “again!”. He did so despite the other assistant coaches begging him to stop and pleading that these players could not handle doing the drill any longer. Brooks was relentless; his response was, with the blow of a whistle & a steely look in his eye, to simply yell “again!”.
Brooks was not sadistic; rather, he knew how valuable & tough his team could truly be, & while not fun, how beneficial grueling consequences for failure could be. Whenever they failed, he pushed them to their limits; not to destroy them, but rather, to build them back stronger than ever and to where they needed to be. And it worked.
His strategy paid off big time. On February 22, 1980, in an epic semi-final match that became known as the “Miracle on Ice,” Brook’s American squad of talented but untested college players outplayed and outscored the mighty Soviet hockey machine. The USA won the gold medal and shocked the entire world by doing so!
All of the many USA players who were interviewed by veteran hockey journalist Kevin Allen, openly attributed their win to the unconventional coach they had, coach Brooks.
“Some of the guys on the Soviet team were players that should have been NHL stars,” says Allen. “For a bunch of American players right out of college to come in and beat them was nearly impossible!”.
When we fail our responsibilities, Hashem does not punish us or put us through grueling galus, in order to hurt us. Rather, He does so not just because we deserve it, but because He knows how valuable we are, & how by doing so, how high He can build us up.
The Kotzker Rebbe (R’ Menachem Mendel Morgenstern, 1787-1859) explains that this is the reason why the halachos of Arachin are directly after the large portion of the Torah which discusses tochacha, pain, and Galus.
Why? Because Arachin details how much a person is required to donate if he chooses to dedicate the “value” of himself or of another Yid to the Bais Ha’Mikdash.
Note that the amount of the required donation does NOT change depending on whether or not the Yid is doing aveiros, is going through trials and tribulations, etc. It always remains the same, and is immutable, no matter what.
Through this juxtaposition, Hashem is teaching and reminding us that He does NOT put us through tochacha, pain, or Galus because we have lost our value as Yidden in any way nor because we are worthless. On the contrary, lehavdil & as but a mashal to illustrate and bring home this very true point: just like a great coach specifically pushes players who he knows are the most valuable and who can become so much greater than where they currently are - and meets their failure with grueling drills and consequences because he knows their true value & potential - so too, lehavdil, Hashem does so with us due to our intrinsic and immutable value in His eyes**.
Ever have a rough day or period in your life? When you do, it is natural to erroneously think that Hashem does not value you or does not care about you. However, instead, remember the above lesson which we learn from our parshah.
Most people can do well when things are easy. However, remember that when things get hard, that too is directly from Hashem. It is not a sign that He is not caring; on the contrary, an Olympic coach only chooses, & pushes to their limit through grueling exercises, the most valuable of athletes. And much like an experienced weight-lifter does not get upset at his personal trainer for pushing him to his limits, nor does a professional sports player or Olympic athlete get upset at his coach who pushes them to theirs – we should work to feel the same. Everything that Hashem puts us through is for one purpose – to actualize our full potential – due to our intrinsic, timeless and unchangeable value in His eyes.
May we all take strength and comfort in this fact, during the inevitable grueling periods of life that we all must face before we can “win the gold medal” of life in This World.
This week’s Dvar Torah was inspired by a Dvar Torah by R’ Ozer Alport.
*- Coach Brooks and the USA Olympic team could only utilize such young & inexperienced talent because professional hockey players were not allowed to play in the Olympics at the time.
** - And just like the wise and experienced player appreciates the wisdom of his coach, and instead of resenting the tests and drills, he understands that this is what brought and brings him to the gold medal – so too should we adopt this mentality. We should realize that we are the focus of Hashem’s attention, all of our lives, & that even the bitter experiences are all messages from Hashem which are coaching us to perfection, due to our intrinsic and immutable value in His eyes (see Meseches Brachos where it states that if you ever experience even the most minor suffering, it is always a constructive message from Hashem, directing you how to or in what area to improve, and one should be mefashfesh b’ma’asav).