When I was a child and young teen, I was a terrible athlete.
And yet, to socialize, I had to try to participate.
I know that it has later become a comic staple — the kid who forever swings and misses, who throws the ball ahead of him and it goes off to one side or the other, who can’t run as fast; and so on.
But the pain of playing poorly is no comedy when you’re young.
Even now, it’s a painful memory, ‘though eased by time.
I was about 13. There was a group of boys I knew who played handball everyday in a nearby park after school. Every day I’d go over there. I’d be the last one picked. I can’t remember ever playing well.
Except for one afternoon.
I was walking to the park, dreading it, yet unable to stay away.
On that one day, I had the strongest feeling: I’m going to play well today.
It wasn’t a “voice.” It was a thought and a feeling of confidence. It was in no way a “decision.” It surprised me but I didn’t take it seriously.
When I got to the handball court, only one of the usual boys showed up (I have no idea why attendance was scant that day, nor did I know in advance that it would be). His name was Peter. He was a short boy but a terrific athlete. A nice guy, too.
Being just the two of us, there was no “choosing teams.” We just started to play one-on-one.
Then, I noticed that when I slapped the ball, it went where I wanted it to go. Again and again.
Whether I was in the “serving” position (nearer the wall) or in the outer position further away, I kept making my shots. And beating Peter, which was unimaginable.
I even got to the point where I could strategize while playing. I realized that if I hit one against the wall hard, Peter would have to go way back for it. When he did so and hit it back, I could just tap it; he’d never be able to get in fast enough to hit it before it bounced more than once.
So that’s what I did.
I won the round.
We played until the usual time, around 5 PM or so, and went home.
I felt good, of course.
The next day, I went back to the courts. The other boys were there this time. I remember that I was the first one chosen. I can’t remember if Peter was one of the choosers, or if he’d told the other boys. But I was chosen first.
I took my place on the court with pleasure and anticipation.
The first ball that came to me, I fumbled. Then the next. And so on with one after the other.
I never had that happy experience again.
I can’t say that I felt filled with any particular strength or “spirit” on that one good day. I just played well. I think I knew, though, that something special had happened.
Some years later, looking back, I felt as if G-d had been showing me:
“Not by power or by might, but by My Spirit…”
Just as we read in the haftarah on Shabbat during Hanukah.