Vayakhel & The Olympics: More Is Too Much

The successful campaign to collect funds and materials for the construction of the Tabernacle, described in this Shabbat’s primary Torah portion, Parashat Vayakhel, was especially notable for its conclusion.

After being informed that the required quantities had been gathered, Moses immediately ordered the Israelites to stop donating to the project.   In doing so, he taught us a critical lesson, sometimes, more is actually too much.

More funds, more precious materials, more volunteer labor could have produced a more beautiful, more elaborate, more opulent Tabernacle.   But instead, Moses collected exactly enough to achieve the exact specifications that God revealed to him.

In the Midrash, our sages imagine God telling Moses, “construct for me a Tabernacle of these dimensions, and I will constrict my presence to fit within it.” In other words, God’s very presence in the Tabernacle, the Tabernacle’s very existence as a sacred space, is connected to Moses’ self-restraint in not building it larger than it was supposed to be.

Moses could have built more, but more would have been too much.

In his classic The Sabbath, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel develops the idea that the Tabernacle, God’s sanctuary in space, is built on the paradigm of the Sabbath, God’s sanctuary in time.   We do not celebrate and sanctify the six days of the week, which parallel the six days of creation, but rather the Sabbath, the seventh day, when God refrained from further activity. Just as with the Tabernacle, God’s presence is manifest in the self-restraint of stopping.

God could have created more, but more would have been too much.

This lesson feels especially resonant after the recent Beijing Winter Olympics. Russian figure skater Kamia Valieva, 15 years old and the pre-games favorite, performed under the scrutiny of a doping scandal, stumbling on the ice and finishing fourth. Her teammate, Alexandra Trusova, 17 years old, was heard shouting after her second-place finish, “I hate this sport,” and, “I won’t go onto the ice again.” A third Russian skater, Anna Shcherbakova, also only 17, won the gold medal but seemed lost amidst the drama. She later reported feeling conflicted over her victory.

Their coach, Eteri Tutberidze, is known for pushing athletes past what were long considered the physical limits of the sport. In particular, her routines feature incredibly difficult quadruple jumps, normally not attempted in female competition.  These jumps earn her skaters extra points, but are physically taxing and dangerous, best performed by the youngest, and lightest skaters.

Tutberidze has produced a long line of athletes who peak at very young ages, 15 to 17, and then disappear quickly into obscurity nursing physical injuries, emotional trauma, or both.

Tutberidze’s approach feels similar to that employed by Martha & Bela Karolyi, who led US women’s gymnastics to international dominance by pushing ever-younger, ever-lighter athletes into ever-more difficult and dangerous routines.

The Karolyis achieved similar results — racking up championship medals, but with a string of broken teenagers left in their wake.

More is too much.   By assigning premium value to skills and feats that can only be performed by young, underdeveloped bodies put under extreme stress, the sports themselves incentivize programs to put outsized physical and emotional pressure on their youngest and most vulnerable competitors.

More is too much.   By refusing to recognize limits, the Karolyis and Tutberidze endangered their athletes — The Karolyis, by ignoring the warnings about sexual abuser Dr. Larry Nasser, and Tutberidze by risking her athletes’ careers with performance-enhancing drugs.

By stopping when it was enough even when he could have built more, Moses created the space for God’s presence. When we rest on the Sabbath even though we could be more productive by working seven days a week, we create holy time.

In contrast, by encouraging these coaches to push beyond any limits, the Olympics robbed us of the joy and inspiration of watching elite athletes perform, leaving us with something more akin to televised child abuse.

Our sages ask, “Who is mighty” and answer “One who conquers their inclination.” True might is in self-restraint, knowing when enough is enough.

About the Author
Avraham Bronstein is rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, NY.
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