We are now in the middle of the Olympic Games in Tokyo. The Olympics began on Friday, July 23rd and will conclude on Sunday August 8th. The day after the Olympics, the Jewish people will enter into the Hebrew month of Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah.
I want to take a moment to ask a rhetorical question. The question is, how does a person win a gold medal at the Olympics? Is there a secret to being the best in the world? We know that practice makes perfect and we also know that before there is practice, there has to be some innate skill, but after we look at our skills and engage in our practice, what is the additional ingredient needed to become the best of the best?
During the Olympic games, a gold medal diver explained that he would lie in bed and visualize over and over how his dive would go flawlessly. In the end, life played out exactly according to his visualization and he won a gold medal.
This notion of imagining how life will be and then living that reality is actually found in the Torah in this week’s parsha, Parshat Eikev. In Parshat Eikev, Moses engaged in a great deal of finger wagging to tell us that we must understand that our accomplishments are not our own. Rather, our accomplishments are caused by grace, and just when we think that we ourselves have accomplished something, it is important for us to remember that God is at the source of all life and being. Our accomplishments are indeed the fruits of our own thoughts and feelings and, at the same time, our thoughts and our feelings exist within the reality of one God, one being, one spiritual reality in which we are all inextricably linked.
This week’s parsha includes the second paragraph of the Shema that begins with the words וְהָיָ֗ה אִם־שָׁמֹ֤עַ “and if you listen.” It says in that paragraph that if we obey the commandments that God is enjoining upon us to love the Lord our God and serve God with all our heart and soul, then God will grant the rain for our land in its season, the early rain and the late rain. And we shall gather in our new grain and wine and oil— and God will also provide grass in the fields for our cattle—and thus we will be able to eat our fill. And if we are lured away to serve other gods and bow down to them, then God’s anger will flare up against us and the rains won’t fall and the people will perish from the good land that God is assigning to us.
What if that’s actually true? What if our actions and our thoughts really do determine the future? What if love really is the answer? What if loving God and loving one another really will allow the desert to bloom? We can debate whether global warming is real and we can also debate whether global warming is reversible and we can also step into the love that is all around us if we can just step out from behind our self-centeredness to realize our oneness with our neighbors and with all life and being.
The Olympics will end a week from tomorrow and the Hebrew month of Elul will begin the day after the Olympics. I think it is safe to say that those who scheduled the Olympics were not necessarily thinking about the Jewish calendar and yet, we will move into the month before Rosh Hashanah just after the Olympics. Just after groups of athletes from all over the world are completing their competition, the Jewish people will move into a month when the focus is on love before entering into a month when the focus is on judgment. Elul is a month when we prepare for Rosh Hashanah by preparing our hearts to offer an apology to those we have hurt and wronged and to turn to God to say we are sorry for all the ways we have let ourselves down and all the ways we have let God down.
As we prepare for round challah and apples and honey to welcome the coming new year with sweetness, we don’t know what life will bring and, yet we do know that love does make the world go round and we do all live on the same planet and our fate is bound up with others in our human family and in the family of the Jewish people.
In this week’s Haftarah, it says, “And you shall know that I am God. Those who trust in God shall not be shamed.” If we can have the courage to face the demons in our lives with love and grace, if we can remember that there is something greater than ourselves, then the burden of being shamed can perhaps lessen. We can perhaps feel more capacity to have pride in our accomplishments while still remembering that our accomplishments do belong to us and our accomplishments also belong to a force greater than us, a force we call God, from which all blessings flow.
There was a great and mighty desert that our ancestors traversed for forty years before entering the Promised Land. After wondering in the desert for those forty years, Moses stood at the Jordan River on the edge of that desert and he wagged his finger at our people to remind us then, and to remind us now, that our thoughts and actions do have consequences. What we think and what we do does affect what will happen all around us. A desert is where human survival is challenging. In spiritual terms, a desert is a place that seems to be devoid of G-d and devoid spiritual purpose. This desert of life can seem intimidating and overwhelming, causing us to become afraid and feel ashamed.
In reality, however, there is no place that is truly a spiritual desert. It may seem that there are places devoid of spirituality, but even in those places, spirituality is still present and there is still a promise of hope for the future.
Our task is to tap into our spiritual potential that is actually concealed and imbedded in the world around us. Our fears and anxieties are a result of our limited perspective. When we see what is possible, we can find a way to know and understand our surroundings as being full of potential for our own future.
This coming week is the last week in the Hebrew month of Av, the month when we honor the sadness and tragedy of life by observing Tisha B’Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and many other tragedies. This same month of Av that began by leading us toward the sadness of Tisha B’Av also brought us Tu B’Av, a day to find and celebrate love. Tu B’Av is a time for romantic love — love of our partner, our spouse. From the place of romantic love, we move into the continuity of love that is emblematic of the Hebrew month of Elul that will begin a week from Monday. The letters that form the name of the month of Elul are aleph lamed vav lamed, which are the initial letters of the words אֲנִי לְדוֹדִי וְדוֹדִי לִי “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.״
The phrase “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” certainly refers to human love and we sometimes hear this phrase at weddings and anniversaries. As we know, the phrase also refers to the love between us and God. Before we do anything else, let us take a moment to feel that love that is all around us. Love of nature. Love of life. Love of the little things. These are truly part of the love of God.
To paraphrase the Olympic diver lying in bed thinking about taking a perfect dive, all we have to do is to constantly visualize God as a reality, over and over again. All we have to do is to see in the world the true essence of our spirituality and then we need to make our spirituality a reality in our everyday life. The renewing of the Jewish year is a time of renewing our commitment to loving ourselves, loving our neighbor and loving God, and that will be a focus from now until Rosh Hashanah and beyond.
May this be a time of great potential and great blessing in our lives; a time of healing, a time of forgiveness, a time of moving away from shame and toward love in our everyday thoughts and actions.
The above are my Thoughts for Shabbat 22 Av 5781 • July 30-31, 2021, delivered at Congregation Beth Jacob, Redwood City.