Mordechai Soskil
Mordechai Soskil

Michael Phelps: A D’var Torah for the First Day of School

After 22 years my wife and I have realized that there are some things that we are just never going to agree on. I like spicy, she likes bland. I like sci-fi, she doesn’t know the difference between a Klingon Bird of Prey and the Millennium Falcon. I like the Olympics, she likes to spend her time doing “productive things.” (I assume such as paying the mortgage and making sure our kids have clothes for school, or some such drudgery.)

This season the summer Olympics were once again a potpourri of glory and misery. Katie Ledecky and Usain Bolt, Aston Eaton helped us experience awe and wonder at the glory of what the human body can do. Ryan Lochte made us wonder at how such a poorly trained human mind can exist inside such a finely trained body. But all that being said, nothing at the Olympics was more impressive to me than our hometown hero – Michael Phelps.

(As a brief aside – I’m not going to comment on The Handshake That Didn’t Happen except to say that it was obviously somewhere between tactless and virulent antisemitism, and neither of those things is particularly surprising. )
Michael “greatest Olympian ever” Phelps is an amazing physical specimen that seems hand crafted by G-d Almighty to show just what the outer limits of the human body can be. But 28 medals and world records are not nearly as impressive as Michael’s journey has been. How many teen stars can you think of that super-nova-ed out into oblivion? How many athletes can you think of that couldn’t pull themselves out of a downward spiral and lost it all? And that’s what’s impressive about Phelps.

If you don’t know the Phelp story click here. Before you click on this video a warning: some of the “street language” might be offensive and considered NSFW.

To me what’s impressive about Michael “how does he do that thing with his arms” Phelps is that he stood at the precipice, he was in such a dark hole he thought his family would be better without him, and he pulled out. Clearly he didn’t do it alone, but he did do it. He realized that he could make a choice to break away from his mistakes and start again. That’s heroic.

After the Olympics the next thing in our consciousness is the new school year. Thinking about the Back-To-School season comes with memories of new notebooks, sharpened pencils, and that Staples commercial where the mother dances down the aisles while Andy Williams sings “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” Working with teens and pre-teens for so many years I know it also comes with that exciting mix of hopes for a new start and worries about new teachers and friends. I was an both an assistant principal and principal in a middle school for 8 years and for each of those years at our opening assembly I would tell the same story:

The Mishna Brurah is a book of law. However, uncharacteristically it does contain one story. In the section that deals with prayer, the author, usually known as the Chofetz Chaim, offers advice in the form of a parable. He says that sometimes a person can be in the middle of the silent Amida and realize that they have not had intention during the blessings already said. In that moment a person might be tempted to just think, “Oh well, I’ve already ruined this prayer. Let me just finish up quickly.” But the error in that thinking is illustrated in a parable about a poor girl. Once there was a poor girl that stood out on the street selling apples trying to make a few pennies. A man came up to her and brazenly just started taking her apples away and filling his pockets. She stood there dumbfounded, frozen. A wise man (frequently the hero in rabbinic parables, weird, right?) yelled from across the street, “don’t just stand there! Grab the apples! Whatever he took he has, but whatever is left, you can grab. Grab apples and put them in your pockets too.” And with this the Mishna Brurah teaches that what blessings we’ve said without devotion, they’re gone. But don’t give up. What ever is left, you can grab. You can start again, right now. And with that I encouraged the students to realize that whatever happened last year, it over. It’s in the past. Whatever happens this year starts right now.

That’s the greatness of Michael “holy cow, how big are his hands?” Phelps too. He realized he could start again.

The ability to start of over is, in a sense, baked into creation itself.

Just after the sin with the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, just before man is expelled from the garden, G-d declares, “And now if man stretches forth his hand . . ” To this the midrash comments, basing itself on a verse in Parshat Eikev, (And now Israel, what is it that G-d asks of you? Only . . .) that where ever you find the word v’atah (with an ayin) And now, it hints to teshuvah, repentance.

This is one of the classic styles of midrash, and levels of nuance are introduced into verses based on comparing word use in a variety of places. Certainly on one level that is what is happening here. But deeper, why is “and now” a hint to Teshuva?

I think the answer is the lesson of Michael Phelps, and the Mishnah Brurah, and every student ready to start the new year. AND NOW is not connected to what happened before. AND NOW is a new moment when I can start to remake myself. That’s what teshuva is, that’s the power of the school year, and that’s what makes a hero.

About the Author
Rabbi Mordechai Soskil has been teaching Torah for more than 20 years. Currently he is the Director of Judaic Studies for the high school at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. He is also the author of a highly regarded book on faith and hashkafa titled "Questions Obnoxious Jewish Teenagers Ask." He and his wife Allison have 6 children that range from Awesome to Fantastic. And now two precious granddaughters.