This summer, millions of people around the world gathered and watched as the fastest, strongest, and most talented athletes from around the world compete at the Olympics in Rio. After watching event after event, I marveled at how such different bodies could excel in such different sports. Like high precision tools, each body style was perfectly suited for the demands of each competition.
We marveled as Usain Bolt, 6 feet, 5 inches, 207 lbs, ran 100 meters in under 10 seconds.
We were in awe as Simone Biles, 4 feet, 8 inches, 100 lbs, catapulted herself into Olympic history.
And we cheered as the U.S. team won the gold medal in Basketball. A team where the average player is a foot taller and over 50 pounds heavier than your rabbis.
I was curious to see what my body was engineered to do. According to this website, it seems that a 33 year old, 5 foot, 6 inch, 155 lb man is destined for two sports: Equestrian and Shooting. I have the same dimensions as Michael Jung, a German Equestrian who competes in Eventing and Julio Cesar Hernandez, a Venezuelan shooter who competes with rifles. I’d like to point out that in one sport, you actually spend much of the competition sitting down and in the other it is actually better if you don’t move. Yes, this body is meant to sit and stay still.
Despite one’s dedication and drive, at one point, their body dictates their future Olympic potential. There is a reason why most marathon runners are on the skinnier end and why most power weight lifters do a better job at tipping the scale. Because athletes, like all of us, have to work with what they’ve got.
This idea of measuring ourselves, not against everyone else, but against ourselves is highlighted in the story of Reb Zusia.
The great Hassidic leader, Zusia, came to his followers. His eyes were red with tears, and his face was pale with fear.
“Zusia, what’s the matter? You look frightened!”
“The other day, I had a vision. In it, I learned the question that the angels will one day ask me about my life.”
The followers were puzzled. “Zusia, you are pious. You are scholarly and humble. You have helped so many of us. What question about your life could be so terrifying that you would be frightened to answer it?”
Zusia turned his gaze to heaven. “I have learned that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Moses, leading your people out of slavery?’”
His followers persisted. “So, what will they ask you?”
“And I have learned,” Zusia sighed, “that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Joshua, leading your people into the promised land?’”
One of his followers approached Zusia and placed his hands on Zusia’s shoulders. Looking him in the eyes, the follower demanded, “But what will they ask you?”
“They will say to me, ‘Zusia, why weren’t you as good as Zusia could have been?’”
Rosh Hashanah does not ask us if we were the best.
It asks if we were the best version of ourselves.
Was I the best Michael I could be?
It takes time to answer this question.
It is a question that must be answered with the mind and with the heart.
Undoubtedly, the melodies, the prayers, the rituals surrounding these ten days of repentance help us on this sacred journey.
On your way out tonight, I encourage you to pick up a handout that Rabbi Lerner and I crafted that can also help on this journey. It lists ten questions to give form to this important introspection. You can discuss the questions at dinner or think about one question each day on the road to Yom Kippur.
Some of these questions include:
(1) When do I most feel that my life is meaningful?
(2) What are my three biggest achievements in the past year.
(3) Are there any ideals I would be willing to die for?
Many of the questions revolve around how we comported ourselves, with regard to ourselves.
I’d like to focus on the last question. Question 10 asks: How have I enabled others to reach their full potential?
In other words, what active part of myself is geared to enabling others to excel and shine. What part of me makes room for the other.
And indeed, there are times where one focuses on the self. Although there is a spirit of camaraderie and tolerance at the Olympics, as John Oliver points out, the point of the individual events is to see who can do their sport the best. And yet, even in the individual events, no individual competes alone. There are coaches, training partners, family, all who cheer from the sidelines.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Paralympic Games. “The Paralympics has grown from a small gathering of British World War II veterans in 1948 to become one of the largest international sporting events by the early 21st century,” states Wikipedia. Held usually a few weeks after the more well-known Olympic Games, this year the games drew more than 4,000 athletes from over 170 countries. Some of these athletes compete in wheelchairs, others with prosthetic limbs. Some without senses such as hearing or sight across more than twenty different sports.
Are they inspirational for their actual athletic accomplishments. Absolutely! In fact, this past year, four 1500m runners finished faster than Rio Olympics gold medal winning times.
Do we sometimes marvel at those accomplishments a little more because we perceive that they overcame greater obstacles. Maybe.
And indeed, during the second day of Rosh Hashanah I will focus on more of those athletes.
For those who are unfamiliar, Paralympians who are visually impaired compete by using sighted-guides in their events.
During the cycling events, cyclists ride a tandem bike, with the sighted driver in front steering and pedaling while the Paralympian pedals with all their might.
In track events, runners are literally tied to their guides by a short tether as they make their way around the track.
And with field sports, like the high jump or long jump, sighted guides clap, yell, and cheer to indicate when to jump, leap, and sprint.
Recognizing the relationship between sighted guides and Paralympians, both receive medals.
Interestingly enough, the medals themselves are specially made for these games. Recognizing that some of the winning Paralympians have visual impairments, the medals have the words “Rio 2016 Paralympic Games” embossed in Braille and, new for this year, make noise.
“Gold medals have twenty-eight steel balls and make the loudest noise. Silver medals have twenty balls, while bronze medals come with sixteen and create the softest sound.” Enabling athletes to be able to distinguish between their prizes.
Just as Olympians and Paralympians require the assistance of others to achieve their own personal heights, so too did our biblical ancestors. Esther drew instruction from Mordekhai, Barak needed the wisdom of Devorah, and Moshe needed both his brother and his sister to rise to greatness. In the year 5777, may we reach our own personal potential and help others go for the gold.