Letting Go and Holding on: Simone Biles and Moshe Rabbeinu

It might surprise you to know that I used to be a gymnast! I don’t think I was very good but I did compete. During one such competition, I was on the uneven bars and in the middle of the routine, I lost my grip and fell off the apparatus injuring my neck. With the encouragement of the coach I got back up and repeated the routine leaving out that one backwards hip roll. The problem, however, was that the dismount required me to throw my body back and as I did, I felt and heard my neck that had already been injured, crack. To this day I have limited movement in my neck. 

Was she selfless or selfish? Did her decision help or hurt her team

I relived that memory as our newsfeeds became abuzz with Simone Biles’ unexpected decision to pull out of the Olympics. For months, leading up to the Tokyo Games, all eyes were on this 24-year-old gymnast. Expectations were high; talks about how she defies gravity, how she is the GOAT ( Greatest Of All Times), and was expected to win several gold medals. And then, after performing a one and a half twist on her vault (which she landed perfectly), instead of her signature two and half twist, she announced to the world, with the same courageous audacity that got her to the Olympics that she would bow out of the competition, citing “mental health” and disappointing fans worldwide.  

The media went wild trying to ascertain her exact motivations. Was she selfless or selfish? Did her decision help or hurt her team? One explanation that I really liked was from another gymnast, Catherine Burns describing a phenomenon called the twisties, a mental state where your muscle memory shuts down in the air mid-twist, and ultimately requires a retraining to perform again. Others weighed in saying that the chance of permanent injury was too high, and pausing, even during the much anticipated Olympics, would literally preserve her life, herself and future career. 

When she is ready, she will come back- in whatever way she chooses, with resilience, stronger than before.

None of us are in Simone Biles’ shoes (leotard), but if I had to guess, this dramatic step did more than preserve her body, and it  will set her up for her future success. When she is ready, she will come back- in whatever way she chooses, with resilience, stronger than before.

My confidence comes from none other than our Biblical GOAT- Moshe Rabbeinu who was of course the greatest prophet of all times.  We are literally told this at the very end of the whole Torah (Deuteronomy 34:10-12): 

וְלֹא־קָ֨ם נָבִ֥יא ע֛וֹד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל כְּמֹשֶׁ֑ה אֲשֶׁר֙ יְדָע֣וֹ יְיְ פָּנִ֖ים אֶל־פָּנִֽים׃ 

Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moshe—whom God knew face to face…​​[who performed] all the signs and wonders which G‑d sent [Moshe] to do in the land of Egypt…

וּלְכֹל֙ הַיָּ֣ד הַחֲזָקָ֔ה וּלְכֹ֖ל הַמּוֹרָ֣א הַגָּד֑וֹל אֲשֶׁר֙ עָשָׂ֣ה מֹשֶׁ֔ה לְעֵינֵ֖י כׇּל־יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ 

[who equaled] that mighty hand, those great awesome things, which Moshe did before the eyes of all Israel.

What deed of Moshe does the Torah refer to with its closing words, “which Moshe did before the eyes of all Israel”?  Employing a method of gezeirah shavah, a Torah interpretation that uses “identical phraseology” to make connections,  Rashi, notices that these words allude to the breaking of the Tablets, which Moshe describes in our parsha this morning as something which he did “before the eyes” of Israel. As it says (9:17)

וָאֶתְפֹּשׂ֙ בִּשְׁנֵ֣י הַלֻּחֹ֔ת וָֽאַשְׁלִכֵ֔ם מֵעַ֖ל שְׁתֵּ֣י יָדָ֑י וָאֲשַׁבְּרֵ֖ם לְעֵינֵיכֶֽם׃

Thereupon I grabbed hold of the two tablets and flung them away with both my hands, smashing them before your eyes. 

The Bible describes Moshe’s rise to leadership, negotiating with Pharaoh for the Israelite’s release from slavery, leading them towards the Promised Land and ascending Mount Sinai to receive the Torah directly from God?   So how is it possible that his greatest act was smashing the 10 Commandments? 

Was it God’s will that made them too heavy?

Here too, the commentaries are interested in Moshe’s motivations, both in his courage OR audacity to break God’s Tablets. Noticing the phraseology in this passage, that Moshe both held onto the Tablets (וָאֶתְפֹּשׂ֙ /grasped) and let go of  וָֽאַשְׁלִכֵ֔ם or threw them, many try to imagine what actually happened. Did Moshe decide to throw the tablets? Did God condone it? Was it God’s will that made them too heavy?

Rashbam (Exodus  32:19), in a fascinating interpretation, seems to imply that these are altogether the wrong questions. In fact, Moshe did, as the peshat says, do both. He was embracing the luchot,  holding onto the  both hands, and then, Rashbam explains, 

When Moshe saw the golden calf, “he became physically too weak to continue to carry the weight of the Tablets and he threw them as far as possible away from himself in order not to cause injury to his feet.”

ולא היה בו כח להשליכם רחוק ממנו קצת שלא יזיק את רגליו בנפלם

This, concludes Rashbam  “is the way all persons throw away a burden they carry which has become too heavy for them.” (This is the way Pirkey de Rabbi Eliezer explains this verse in chapter 45. This is also the plain meaning of the verse.)

כדרך כל משליכי משאוי כשאין בהם כח לשאת. וכן ראיתי בפרקים של רבי אליעזר ועיקר פשוטו כך

Rashbam understood that if Moshe injured his legs, he would not be able to get up and climb the mountain again.

In Rashbam’s imagination, Moshe simply could not hold onto what suddenly had turned into a  heavy burden, and threw the Tablet  away to protect his feet. But why is Rashbam so concerned about Moshe’s feet?

Here, my friends, is I think the simple point of this dramatic scene. Rashbam understood that if Moshe injured his legs, he would not be able to get up and climb the mountain again. 

If he hadn’t known when to let go, if he had not preserved his physical and emotional well being, even in front of all the eyes of Children of Israel, he would not have found the resilience to get up and try again. This act of shattering the Tablets, is what made Moshe the greatest leader of all times.  

The formula for Moshe, was knowing when to grasp tightly, and hold onto something precious and wonderful with two hands-  וָאֶתְפֹּשׂ֙ בִּשְׁנֵ֣י הַלֻּחֹ֔ת.

To have the energy and strength, wisdom and fortitude to carry something as precious as the Tablets; and at the same time, knowing and understanding the consequences of holding on when that burden becomes too heavy.  Of knowing when to let go- וָֽאַשְׁלִכֵ֔ם מֵעַ֖ל שְׁתֵּ֣י יָדָ֑י

Of casting the burden away, and doing so in such a way that preserves yourself.

As the Da’at zekeinim (Deuteromony 9:17) explains, this is what Ecclesiastes 3:5 had in mind when he wrote: עֵ֚ת לְהַשְׁלִ֣יךְ אֲבָנִ֔ים, “there is an appropriate time for throwing stones.”  This is a reference to the first set of Tablets. When the author continued with: וְעֵ֖ת כְּנ֣וֹס אֲבָנִ֑ים, “an appropriate time for gathering in stones,” he referred to the second set of Tablets.

Simon Biles’ decision was not selfless or selfish, rather she recognized and preserved her self so that she would not disappear.  I have seen some people comparing Biles to Kerri Strug, who during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, famously broke her ankle on the vault. She performed her second vault injured, stuck the landing and helped Team USA clinch a team gold medal in women’s gymnastics. Both are seen as heroes.  However, Strug never competed again. She (or more likely, the pressure of her coaches and all of our expectations of her)  prioritized the gold medal over her health. Simone had the courage, before all of our eyes, as the world watched, to prioritize her health over a gold medal. And as I think about Strug and Biles, I  wonder about the choice I made back when I️ was a kid, and my decision that permanently altered my posture. 

Knowing our limits, knowing when to let go, and not allow something to shatter, can actually make us stronger. 

Perhaps the shattered tablets, explains Rashi, were preserved, kept and carried in the second wooden ark, as Moshe and the Children of Israel journeyed through the desert, as a reminder of this lesson. That brokenness does not need to be equated with weakness. Knowing our limits, knowing when to let go, and not allow something to shatter, can actually make us stronger. 

In throwing the Tablets away from his feet, Moshe had the resilience to pick himself up again, and climb the mountain for another chance to receive the second set. The  of the Ten Commandments. The ones, which would ultimately carry the Israelites through their journey through the desert towards their final destination.  

May we all have the courage, despite all eyes on us, to know when and what to hold on to, and then to also know when and what to let go.

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About the Author
Rabba Sara Hurwitz, Co-Founder and President of Maharat, the first institution to ordain Orthodox women as clergy, also serves on the Rabbinic staff at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.
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