This Motzei Shabbat, England will play France in the Quarter Finals of the World Cup. Normally I would be writing how wonderful it is that we have a winter World Cup so that we can watch games at 7pm on Motzei Shabbat! However, as you know, from my piece a few weeks ago, I am not watching this World Cup.
So why strange? Because normally I would be excited about such a game, would watch it with family and friends and celebrate if England won. Yet, this year, I will be getting ready for a Melava Malka, just an ordinary Motzei Shabbat.
Yet, I have been inspired by the World Cup. Not by the tournament, but by a player, a player who is really turning into an inspirational young man – Bukayo Saka.
This player was just 19 years old when he missed a crucial penalty in the European Championship Final in the summer of 2021 and was subject to racist abuse and presumably his own feelings of regret and upset. However, this season he has bounced back and is playing at the top of his game, seemingly able to put the difficult experience behind him.
For a now 21 year old, in the public eye – that is remarkable.
How did he achieve this?
The answer, I believe was given in an interview he gave recently where he was asked the following question by journalists in Qatar.
‘I’ve read an interview where you said that you read the Bible every night and I just wondered if you were doing that out here.’
His answer was beautiful:
‘Yeah, I’ve been continuing to do that out here with my Bible every night. For me it’s really important to obviously have the presence of God in Me all the time and it gives me more confidence. You know that God’s plan is perfect, so I can go on a pitch and I know that God has my back. But the main thing for me is just keeping my faith, you know just having faith in God, so I don’t need to be nervous or worry about any outcomes because obviously it’s my first World Cup you know I can I can start worrying about different things and different outcomes, but instead I just choose to put my faith in God.’
As with every job in life, we need to have a balance. We need to put in the requisite effort, in Saka’s case, train hard and look after yourself physically. Then there is the other part, a realisation and a belief that Hashem is in control and that there is reason and meaning in the world around us, and our job is to work out our place in the Divine plan for the universe.
When the Saka interview came to light, one of my friends joked ‘He is studying 929 with Rav Bini Lau, amazing’. 929 is a website which covers a chapter a day of Tenach, learned by thousands across the world. Had Saka been studying it, he would have been amazed by the story on the day he gave his interview. It is from Shoftim 7 and is about Gideon’s victory against Midian. He raises a large army to fight but Hashem tells him.
‘The LORD said to Gideon, “You have too many troops with you for Me to deliver Midian into their hands; Israel might claim for themselves the glory due to Me, thinking, ‘Our own hand has brought us victory.’
Hashem is telling Gideon an age-old lesson, people will naturally think it is them, their success, their talent, their greatness that made things happen. We need to make it more obvious that, yes, you need to fight but the victory is your efforts plus Divine assistance.
Yaacov follows the same play book in this week’s parsha. Both the effort to prepare for the confrontation with Esav as well as the tefillah to Hashem – both are required.
Yaacov became very frightened and was distressed; so he divided the people who were with him and the flocks and the cattle and the camels into two camps. And he said, “If Esav comes to one camp and strikes it down, the remaining camp will escape.”
Bereshit 32: 8-9
And Yaacov said, “O God of my father Avraham and God of my father Yitzchak, the Lord, Who said to me, ‘Return to your land and to your birthplace, and I will do good to you.’ I have become small from all the kindnesses and from all the truth that You have rendered Your servant, for with my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Now deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esav
He took from what came into his hand a gift for his brother Esau: Two hundred she goats and twenty he goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams. Thirty nursing camels with their young, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty she donkeys and ten he donkeys.
Bereishit 32:14- 16
As we live in an increasingly secular world, it is heartening to hear someone who is a role model to many young people speaking so openly and passionately about his love of learning the Bible and his belief in Hashem.
For Saka, his faith in God, combined with his efforts, he hopes and prays, will allow him to continue his success and score many goals.
For all of us, it is not much different – maybe not scoring – but certainly achieving!