I have been glued to the Olympics these past two weeks. My kids and I have been watching replays from the night before in the moments between breakfast and school. And I have been staying up way too late watching historic competitions like the first women's monobob, figure skating's emotional performances, and the rising tide of black athletes in the winter sports. I have surely tried but failed to appreciate the sport of curling, played Harry Potter style with brooms and stones.
Each night I am filled with awe (and some terror, particularly with skeleton) as each athlete completes near-impossible feats on (fake) snow and hard ice. The sheer speed and complexity of each event defies my own experience of the human body. 1620s. 130 km/hr. Winning defined by thousandths of a second.
But what has really got me hooked, both in the Tokyo Olympics this past summer and in Beijing this winter, is the unprecedented vulnerability of so many of the athletes. The pandemic has placed unreasonable demands on their lives (like ours!) and the pressure has impacted their performances.
It started when Simone Biles got the "twisties" and couldn't perform on the vault. It was a stress-induced mental block that gave her vertigo in the air and prevented her from knowing up from down. It inspired her to talk to the world about her struggles with mental health.
The transparency and vulnerability has continued this winter. I have read so many unbelievable stories. Kailie Humphies, the former Canadian bobsled star who left the sport because her coach was abusive. She later married an American and received her citizenship two months ago so she could compete for the U.S. Elena Meyers Taylor is the mom of a toddler. She pumped while training in quarantine to create more precedent that it is possible to be a parent and an Olympian. The snowboarder Shaun White fell in his farewell Olympic half-pipe run and sobbed in the embrace of his fellow competitors. I could go on with another half-dozen names, but would be remiss if I didn't mention Erin Jackson, Nathan Chen, and Kamila Valieva. Each of these athletes has revealed themself to be undeniably human while competing.
Their courage points me towards one of the most foundational teachings of this week's parsha, Ki Tisa. Infamously, this is the parsha where Moses takes a long minute up on Mt. Sinai. When he returns, he finds that Aaron and the Israelites have built a molten calf; an "elohim" to worship. This violates the very words that the Holy One had carved on the two tablets Moses is carrying, and proceeds to smash. And it undermines the entire spiritual journey that Abraham began in Genesis when he left his father's house, his birthplace, his home, and with it the idolatrous practices of his ancestral people.
I have often wondered, why is it so important that our concept of the Divine be intangible and ineffable? What specifically about the golden calf was so anathema to Moses and to the Holy One?
Oddly enough, watching Kamila Vallieva crumble under the cruel scrutiny of the Olympic Committee brought this teaching home for me. These athletes are not golden idols, even if they are chasing gold medals. They are fallible and feeling, and this is what defines their humanity. No amount of training can alter the profound vulnerability of being human.
If our concept of Divinity existed in metallic form it would be solid, fixed, impermeable, and in that way perfect. And we might be led to believe that we too, made in the image of the Divine, have the capacity for unfaltering perfection.
This is a truth I think the Olympians know best. None of them are under the illusion that being the best is achievable beyond the snapshot of a moment. One year you are the fastest and four years later you lose by a whole second!
The threat of the golden calf is both theological and psychological. For Moses it undermines the entire project of entering into a relationship with a Source that is nothing and everything. The draw of the golden calf is its definiteness. But the very essence of the Holy One is precisely its infiniteness.
We are made in the image of something that knows no bounds. And we are conditioned to strive towards our gold medals. But lest we worship or think we can become them, Moses smashes the tablets. Just like Abraham before him, who smashed all the idols in his father's shop. Our vulnerability is the starting point of our relationship with the Divine.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.