They call it the gentleman’s sport. They say it either saps your soul or it inspires you, depending on your game. They say you can’t give up because every day is a new challenge. They say that if you play it alone you are eccentric, but if you play it with friends you are sociable. They say that cheating in this game is a waste of time, it doesn’t get you ahead.
They say all that about golf. They also say all that about Torah. A friend and I sat down for a coffee and a chat to see if we could find some parallels between golf and Torah and despite our initial skepticism we found quite a few. Here they are:
Hole In One
Every amateur dreams of a hole in one. It is the Holy Grail and when you hit it, it becomes a peak you never forget. Notwithstanding future successes or frustrations, this will always be your high moment, the emblem of your career. Yet, if you never hit it, you never stop dreaming. You go out every day because you never know, today might be the day.
The Baal Shem Tov taught that a soul can descend to this world for 70 or 80 years to do a single favor for another. You never know which favor it might be, but when you encounter that moment, it will make or break your entire lifetime. If you do the favor, you have fulfilled your purpose and endowed your entire life with meaning. If you don’t… it’s our religious hole in one opportunity and not hitting it, is simply not an option. There is too much riding on it. So we go out every day and seek out every opportunity to help another. We don’t miss a single one because it might just be THE one. When you encounter that moment, you want to hit it straight and true, driving it directly into the hole.
In golf, it is a hole in one. In religion, it is a whole with one. Becoming whole with G-d, who is one.
Competing Against Self
Golf is different from all other sports in that you compete against yourself. Unless you are a professional, competing at a tournament, the player to beat is yourself. You are always competing against yesterday’s score and last game’s drive. What others do is immaterial to your game. In golf there is only one person to overcome – you.
The same holds true in religion. People love to judge others, but Torah doesn't want you to play the next person’s game. Torah wants you to play your game. Get out there every day and never give up. Yesterday might have been an amazing day for you, but that doesn’t absolve you from starting all over again today. In fact, it doesn’t absolve you from making tomorrow even better than today. On the other hand, yesterday might have been disastrous for you, but that doesn’t prevent today from being an unprecedented success - if you keep competing.
The Social Element
Golf wouldn’t be enjoyable if it were played in isolation. While there are exceptions to every rule, most people are enticed to the golf course by the social element. Spending several hours with good friends in a serene setting, makes an otherwise stressful game, enjoyable.
Religion can be a high strung affair. There are high expectations and demands. We are told to please G-d, whose perfection is beyond our capabilities. There are expectations of daily prayer, constant vigilance, dietary restrictions, Shabbat and holiday observances and strenuous fast days. There are moral exhortations of humility, generosity and honesty. Religion can easily become tense and stressful, but not when it is celebrated with community.
Torah asks us to celebrate with family and friends. Shabbat observances are not the same and certainly not as enjoyable on our own. What makes it special, is family and community. Private prayer is discouraged. Prayer in large groups is preferred. Religion ought to be pleasant, sociable and enjoyable. Not stressful and guilt-ridden.
A big part of the golf etiquette is supporting your friends when they hit a good shot and comforting them when it goes bad. There is a somewhat selfish element to that because we want our friends to support us when we fall off our game, but that is certainly not the intent. The idea is that despite the solitary nature of the game, in that each person competes against their own record, we are in it together. We all have the same challenges. Notwithstanding our respective levels of talent, we are always there for each other.
The Torah instructs us to focus on our own game and not judge others, but there is another side to it too. When others need help or encouragement, we must be there for them. When others need direction or support, we must be there for them. When others need a compliment or cheering up, we must be there for them. When others require a crying shoulder, we must offer our own. In short, celebrate another’s success like it’s your own and help them with their shortcomings like you would want to be helped.
More than any other game, golf is ruled by ethics. Due to the nature of the game, there is ample opportunity to cheat. You are often alone on the fairway, when you retrieve your ball and no one would know if you adjusted your placement. Yet, no one cheats. It goes against the grain. It’s understood on a gut level that a cheating victory is a hollow victory, one that lacks all meaning.
It goes without saying that there are no shortcuts in Torah. No one will know how you behave in the privacy of your room and what you think in the privacy of your mind. It’s possible to mislead the entire community and convince them you are more pious than you are, but what’s the point? In religion, more than any other endeavor, we seek to impress G-d. And G-d can’t be fooled. I once heard it put this way. You can’t fool society, you will eventually be found out. You certainly can’t fool G-d, He knows immediately. The only one you can fool is yourself, but what is to be gained from fooling a fool?
The many parallels between Torah and golf demonstrate that golf has spiritual a strain. It requires diligence, humility, honesty and hard work. Yet, golf isn't a substitute for religion. No matter how many hole in ones you might hit, a Jew, on Yom Kippur, belongs in shul. In golf your objective is to best yourself. In religion your objective is to draw closer to G-d. The means might be similar, but the goals are different. One other difference is that golf can only be practiced on the course. Religion is much easier, it can be practiced anywhere. So when pick up your siddur at home, the message is the same as when you pick up your clubs at the course - keep practicing. With time, you will improve.
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a respected writer, scholar and speaker, is the spiritual leader of Beth Tefilah congregation in London, Ontario. He is the author of Reaching for God: A Jewish Book on Self Help, and his new book, Mission Possible: Living With High