Why an Israeli athlete's decision not to play on Yom Kippur matters

Dudi Sela forfeited tens of thousands of dollars and ranking points.

DESPITE WINNING the first set in a tie-break against American Josh Donaldson, Israel’s Dudi Sela was knocked out of the Citi Open in the opening round late Monday night (photo credit: REUTERS)
DESPITE WINNING the first set in a tie-break against American Josh Donaldson, Israel’s Dudi Sela was knocked out of the Citi Open in the opening round late Monday night
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Conjuring up memories of Sandy Koufax, our top-ranked male tennis player, Dudi Sela, quit the quarterfinals of a Chinese tournament mid-match Friday out of deference to the holiness of Yom Kippur.
Sela’s request to play the first match of the day on the main court so that he would have time to finish before sunset was turned down by the organizers of the contest. Instead, he was scheduled to play the second match of the day, which meant that he would almost certainly not finish in time.
Sela was tied after two sets against Ukrainian Alexandr Dolgopolov and Sela was trailing 1-0 in the third set when he abruptly approached the umpire’s chair and told him that he needed to retire.
Sela’s personal sacrifice was huge. It is believed that he forfeited $34,000 in prize money and 90 ranking points. His last appearance in an Association of Tennis Professionals tour level final was in Atlanta three years ago, according to Vavel, an international sports site.
Like Koufax’s decision on October 6, 1965, to sit out the first game of the World Series against the Minnesota Twins, Sela’s retirement on Yom Kippur eve made a statement – there are some things that stand above sports, whether it be team sports like baseball or single-player sports like tennis.
The athlete’s complete dedication to winning is sometimes subordinated to greater ideals. Loyalty to people, to God, sometimes takes precedence.
Dudi Sela vs Alexandr Dolgopolov - SHENZHEN 2017 QF Highlights, September29, 2017. (YouTube/Tennis Highlights 2)
And this is a powerful message. Life is not all about self-realization and personal advancement. True meaning often comes from selfless acts that affirm our deeper affiliation and belonging.
Like Koufax, Sela is personally not a very religious person, according to his brother Ofer. He does not normally fast on Yom Kippur.
“He did it only because he respects Yom Kippur and the country that he represents,” noted Ofer.
Refraining from playing on Yom Kippur for someone who is not adherent is in many ways more significant because it reflects a conscious decision.
It was a greater sacrifice because Sela did not take it for granted that he would not play. Sela could have rationalized playing on Yom Kippur. He could have told himself that a good showing in the tournament would put Israel’s name on the map. Similarly, Koufax could have cited his need to be a “team player” and not let his teammates down.
Sela could have subsumed his Jewish identity under his tennis persona. He could have stretched his secular Israeli identity to include participation in international sports contests on Yom Kippur.
Similarly, Koufax could have taken on an American identity that canceled out or subordinated his unique Jewish identity. That these men chose not to is a testament to deeper, more authentic currents of self-definition that provide meaning.
Of course, the comparison between Sela and Koufax cannot be taken too far. There were special circumstances surrounding Koufax’s demonstrative act.
He happened to be the best pitcher in baseball, which at the time was still the most popular sport in America. With just three TV networks, the World Series commanded the attention of most of America.
And Koufax honored Yom Kippur two decades after the liberation of the concentration camps, when the memory of the Shoah was just beginning to be reckoned with.
In contrast, Sela, who is Israel’s best tennis player, is ranked 77th in the world. His decision to stop playing mid-match was done during a quarter-final game in Shenzhen, China, making it one of many different sporting events that vie for the world public’s attention.
Still, both men demonstrated by example what is important in life and what is less so. Will Israeli boys and girls start inviting Sela to their bar and bat mitzva ceremonies? It is unlikely. But like Koufax, Sela is a source of pride for the Jewish people. Even in Shenzhen, China, at great personal expense, a Jew should remember his roots.