The portion this week teaches about the Passover holiday and how we shouldn't eat anything leavened like bread or cake on Passover. We are instructed to eat instead flat, unleavened Matzot (13:7). Our sages learn a big life-lesson from here. Leaven, which causes dough to rise, can be compared to haughtiness, the feeling within a person of being puffed-up, and somehow 'better' than anyone else. The unleavened Matzah, in contrast, represents being humble and down to earth. While it is a positive thing to like and value ourselves, we should be careful all year long not to puff ourselves up with the feeling that we need to be better than everyone else to feel happy.
Our story is about a puffed up boy who discovers that he can still like himself without having to be the best.
"FOLLOW THE BOUNCING BALL"
"What's the matter? You got a hole in your paddle or something?!" Jon laughed, as his hapless opponent went chasing after the ping-pong ball Jon had just smashed past his head.
There was no doubt about it, Jon Field was the undisputed ping-pong champion of our neighborhood community center, and everyone knew it. (And if for some reason they didn't, Jon would make sure to let them know!) The boy would hover over the ping-pong table like a king at his court, and challenge anyone to come up and take a beating at the hands of 'The Champ.' He always wore a red silk warm-up jacket and special hat which had 'I'm #1' printed on the front.
The rule at the community center was that whoever won got to stay at the table. Since none of us could beat him, and we started to get tired of his insults, there were many days when Jon would actually sit by the ping-pong table alone, arms folded and gloating over how he was so good, and that no one was foolish enough to take him on. You might think this would be boring for him, but he really seemed to love it.
One day Sol Stein brought a friend visiting from out of town to the community center. He was a short, skinny kid that no one would have even noticed, except for the fact that he made his way right over to the ping-pong table, picked up a paddle and wanted to play.
He didn't know about Jon, and I felt sorry for him. I tried to clue him in before he made a fool out of himself. "Maybe you would be better off playing something else..."
"Why, is the ping-pong table broken or something?"
Before I could explain, we were interrupted by a loud voice.
"Hey, leave him alone!" thundered Jon. "I haven't had a new victim for a long time! C'mon kid, let's see what you're made of."
It was too late. We all felt bad for the poor kid, but there was nothing we could do. "I'd say this should take about five minutes," laughed the champ in his typical obnoxious voice, speaking to nobody in particular.
We all looked on as the short kid stood quietly on his side of the table and waited for Jon to serve the ball. It wasn't going to be pretty, but we had tried to warn him. Jon served the ball, a fast curving shot, but to everyone's surprise, the new kid smashed it right back past him before he even had a chance to respond!
"Lucky shot." Jon sneered.
But it wasn't a lucky shot. The kid turned out to be some kind of ping-pong whiz, with moves like none of us had ever seen before. It was amazing; he was wiping the table with Jon, right before our very eyes! Meanwhile, Jon's face was turning redder than his jacket. It was hard to tell if he was mad or just embarrassed. It was probably plenty of both.
Jon was right; the game did end in just five minutes - but not the way he expected. The second the game was over, he went running out of the room, covering his face with his hands. All the kids gathered around to meet the new champ. It seems he had been brought up in China where kids learn how to play ping-pong almost before they can walk. No wonder he was so good.
Jon didn't come back that day, or the next few days after, either. I started wondering if he was okay and stopped by to visit him. He seemed really down, but happy to see me.
"Hey Jon, when're you coming back?" I asked him.
He shrugged. "What's the point if I'm not champ anymore?"
I tried to explain to him how he was still our friend whether he was champ or not. And since the new kid probably isn't coming back for a while, Jon would still be like the champ amongst us anyway. Jon said he'd think about it.
Sure enough, the next day he came. But it took us a while to recognize him. He was so different: no warm up suit, no 'I'm #1' hat. But the biggest change was the way he acted. Even when he would win, which he usually did, he acted much more humble about it, and even tried to make his opponent feel good about the way he played. He seemed much happier too, and a warm smile replaced his usual sneering scowl.
As we were leaving that day, Jon came over to me. "Today was the most fun I ever had here," he said. "Thanks to you, and that ping-pong whiz for teaching me that I don't have to be '#1' to be happy. I just have to be me."
Q. How did Jon feel at the beginning of the story?
A. He felt like he was better than everyone else, so it was okay to put them down.
Q. How did he feel in the end, after he lost, and spoke about it with his friend?
A. Jon realized that he was still a good person even if he wasn't the best player, and didn't have to make people who didn't play as well as he feel bad.
Q. Why do you think Jon started to act differently after he lost his championship?
A. Jon was a good ping-pong player. Unfortunately he let it go to his head, and it started making him into a not-such-a-good friend. He acted haughty and puffed-up. But once he discovered someone even better than he was, his puffed-up bubble burst, and came to realize that it wasn't a person's ability that makes him worthwhile, but the person himself. So from then on he was able to treat his friends respectfully.
Q. Can you think of a way Jon won by losing?
A. Although he may not have been the champ anymore, he gained something much more important and long lasting; he became a more humble person, which is one of the most important traits toward living a happy and successful life.
Ages 10 and Up
Q. Our sages teach us that Moses was the greatest person who ever lived, yet he was also the most humble. How could this be?
A. Moses was well aware that he had talents and attributes beyond any of his peers. However he also realized the source of those talents: God. So he didn't take his greatness 'personally', as a reason to be haughty, rather he felt privileged that God had chosen to give them to him, and this made him extremely humble.
Q. What should a person do if he feels himself growing haughty, and wants to eliminate this negative trait?
A. One effective technique is to temporarily go to the other extreme, and act extra humble. For instance, we could let people go ahead of us in line, even if we don't feel like it. Another thing is to try to grow in our awareness of God. The more we become aware of His greatness and awesome power, we will realize that we don't have that much to be haughty about.