Going for Gold

There’s a lot to unpack in our torah portion this week, but I’ll begin with one of the more troubling stories. Moses ascends the mountain to take down the law on two tablets. The Israelites simply don’t know what is going on. Did Moses slip and fall? Was he negotiating on their behalf for a generic, less expensive set of tablets? The growingly impatient Israelites take Aaron’s instructions to remove their gold earrings so that they might create a tangible, see it to believe it God to worship as the one who brought them out of the land of Egypt. Following the egel hazahav, the Golden calf, are plagues, violence, mistrust and unrest. This isn’t the gold standard for nation and community building. The calf may have been beautiful and maybe it was what the Israelites thought they needed for that moment, but what we as a people remember is their impatience, their loss of faith, and less than ideal leadership. 

And yet, this negative storyline is surrounded by positive acts- a second chance to write the tablets, sharing the foundational laws of Shabbat as a tangible way to see God’s creations as everyday miracles. But it is in the opening lines that we find the anecdote that reveals leadership, patience and faith in one another. 

כִּ֣י תִשָּׂ֞א אֶת־רֹ֥אשׁ בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֮ לִפְקֻדֵיהֶם֒

“When you take a census of the Israelite men according to their army enrollment” (Exodus 30:12) We see that this census meant that each person, regardless of status, provides a hatzi shekel, a half a silver (not Gold) coin. We focus on this idea that each of us counts, but I want to zero in on the term the text uses to conduct this census. כִּ֣י תִשָּׂ֞א אֶת־רֹ֥אשׁ בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֮ (Lit. “lift up the heads”) harkens back to an earlier story in the book of Genesis.

Joseph, interpreting the cupbearer’s dream, states “In three days Pharaoh will pardon you**pardon you Lit. “lift up your head.” (יִשָּׂ֤א פַרְעֹה֙ אֶת־רֹאשֶׁ֔ךָ) and restore you to your post; you will place Pharaoh’s cup in his hand, as was your custom formerly when you were his cupbearer. (Genesis 40:13) Dignity is restored to the cupbearer because Pharaoh, the old Pharaoh, lifts up the cupbearer’s head. They see each other face to face, just as in our parsha, Moses lives the head of each of the Israelite men. He sees them, as he has seen God, face to face. It is not merely the act of taking their half shekel, it’s seeing and acknowledging the purpose each of us has in this journey. And in raising the heads of the Israelites, one by one, he ilfts their spirits and ours in seeing this dignified example of raising others.

I was thinking about this notion of raising others the past few weeks. You see, a torah portion about Gold, Silver, (and yes there is even a reference to a bronze basin), seems like it was destined to be read during the Olympic Games, at least in a quadrennial cycle of torah reading. 

What’s your greatest memory of the Olympic games? That moment etched in your heart because you saw it on tv or heard about it soon thereafter. For me, there are a handful of moments that define the Olympics for me. And none include the names of Olympic greats like Mark Spitz, Usain Bolt, or Michael Phelps (I did appreciate watching the 2008 Phelps show on our new 37 inch HD tv with no other furniture in our possession, just a week after we got married). I also must say that while I would’ve appreciated moments like Jesse Owens defying fascism or the 1908 Miracle on Ice, I wasn’t alive for those moments. And apologizes to Kerri Strug as well as all of competitors in the Summer Olympics of 1996, 2000, or 2004 (I was away at summer camp).

We begin in 1988. Dan Jansen finds out his sister has passed away. Stricken with grief, he competes but falters in his attempt to medal. He continues on to 1992 again without a medal. In 1994, Dan Jansen finally wins the 500m speed skating Gold following tragedy. 

1992: British sprinter Derek Redmond, tore his hamstring in the 400 meters semi-final but continued the race limping. Derek and his father JIm, complete the lap of the track together, with Derek leaning on his father’s shoulder for support following his injury.

For the Olympic games can bring out the best in who we are as human beings, and it may not have anything to do with the world records or medals we win. 

2021 Tokyo: When Mutaz Essa Barshim and Gianmarco Tamberi finished the men’s high jump competition tied, they could have gone to a jump-off to decide the winner. Instead, the two competitors decide to share in the joy of Gold. 

2022: After finishing last in the #CrossCountrySkiing 15km, Carlos Quintana of Colombia was embraced by #Gold medallist Iivo Niskanen of Finland. Niskanen finished a full 8 minutes ahead of Quintana, but as he said, ““All athletes must respect each other, everyone has worked hard to be here.”

And just prior to these Olympics, two local athletes made headlines. From the speed skating capital of the US, Ocala Florida, came two Olympic heroes, Erin Jackson and Britanny Bowe. 

Team USA’s Erin Jackson was ranked No. 1 in the world over 500m when she slipped during the Olympic Speed Skating Trials. She thought her Beijing 2022 dream was over but an act of generosity of her longtime friend Brittany Bowe changed all that. Bowe gave up her spot in the 500m (she competed in two other distance events at the games) so that her friend, the talented former Jax Roller Girl All Star and Florida Gator I might add, could compete, and win Olympic gold, becoming the first Black woman to ever win gold in the 500m speed skating event, and the first American woman since Bonnie Blair in 1994 to medal in the 500m. Bowe, the world record holder in the 1000m, won a bronze medal in that distance.

We tune in every four years to follow the “odds on favorites,” forgetting that their stories are filled with hardships: anxiety, financial difficulties, you name it. But we also forget that during those years, friendships are formed, the Olympic spirit is strengthened, and sportsmanship reigns. Gold medals may tarnish over time for a number of reasons, and these recent games do not come without controversy, but sportsmanship, and the compassion and support for fellow competitors, never withers. Even when we have to google search to remind ourselves of the name of an athlete or the country they represented, that feeling of witnessing something special, remains. We may think we need to see something spectacular, some egel hazahav, but if we allow ourselves to lift our heads, lift the heads of others, we see goodness and greatness all around us. Sure, we can enjoy a golden moment, but one that involves a half-silver? That’s the story that drives our spirit. How can we find instances in our own lives to lift others through selfless acts? How can we be driven to do things that may pull us back to the pack rather than lead us to “victory”? As we approach the festival of Purim, our tradition reminds us through gifts of charity and mishloach manot, that our individual joy is tied to another, that it isn’t me and you, but us. This is the Olympic spirit, and the spirit of our people. 

Posted on February 20, 2022, in Hazzan's Monday Morning Quarterback. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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