Coming Together Can Be Miraculous By Rabbi Ari Ballaban

With the PyeonChang Olympics approaching, a certain element of this year’s lead-up to the Games has me thinking of a major highlight from the 1980 Winter Olympics: The so-called Miracle on Ice.

In that year’s Olympics, the US men’s ice hockey team staged an impossibly-unlikely upset against the Soviet team on their way to winning a gold medal. This match was an extraordinary moment in sports history, and in 2008 the International Ice Hockey Federation even went so far as to name it the top international hockey story of the preceding century.

Joint Korean Hockey Team

2018 may be the year of a second, reconstituted miracle on ice. In an exceptionally controversial move, the president of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, reached an agreement with the leadership of North Korea that will accomplish two significant things. First, this agreement will let many North Korean athletes come to South Korea to compete under their own flag at the upcoming competitions. However, perhaps more importantly, it will also establish a joint North and South Korean ice hockey team that will compete this year at the Games. If we can call this, in fact, a second “miracle on ice,” it is clear that unlike the 1980 Miracle—which was about an improbable victory and a team’s triumph over a bitter rival—the spirit of this contemporary miracle is rapprochement

By the time you read this article, the facts may have changed dramatically. Nevertheless, we should reflect on what this agreement could represent. Of course, there are those around the world (including analysts from both the United States and South Korea) who reasonably view this development negatively, and my Jewish read on the situation is not meant to rebut their legitimate concerns. Instead, it is meant to prompt us to appreciate the very real good attained simply by people coming together.

It is no accident that we often begin our services with the words of Psalm 133: הִנֵּה מַה-טּוֹב וּמַה-נָּאִים, שֶׁבֶת אַחִים גַּם-יָחַד, Behold how good and pleasant it is when brothers sit together!

Focusing more on this line, it is worth noting a significant, but often-overlooked nuance in the phrase שֶׁבֶת אַחִים (“shevet achim”). While I translate it above as “when brothers sit together” (and other translators stretch the Hebrew even further, rendering it “that brothers sit together”), the words are actually best understood as (the admittedly inelegant): “Behold how good and pleasant is the sitting-together of brothers.” The idea of this verse is not that it is lovely that brothers sit together; we know, of course, that they often choose not to! Even “when brothers sit together” is a bit of a stretch: In plenty of sibling relationships, the question about their sitting-together isn’t about a “when,” but an “if.” Perhaps this is why this psalm instructs us as it does, simply to recognize the objective beauty in an ideal of brothers being together.

The 18th century Torah commentator David Altshuler, in his commentary Metzudat David, reflected on the last words of this verse in light of historical divisions among the Jewish people. Like today’s Koreans, Jews were once been divided into rival kingdoms: Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Altshuler expressed his wish, prompted by the words גַּם-יָחַד, that: “ויהיו גם יחד במלכות אחת ולא יחצו לשתי ממלכות עוד,” “That they [the Israelites] should be together under a single kingship and not be divided into two kingdoms again.”

I think Altshuler’s sentiment transfers to the modern spirit quite well. As we watch the Olympic Games unfold, I think we can be fairly realistic about the immediate, larger political outcomes we can expect. However, perhaps we can set our sights a little lower: For there to be a miracle on ice again this year, the being-together of two peoples may, actually, be enough. If we agree with Psalm 133, we might see this joint team as something of beauty, something “good and pleasant,” something miraculous.

Rabbi Ari Ballaban