Next week we begin the month of Elul, our month to begin preparing for the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, and the marathon of fall holidays. I think the recent Olympic games serve as a fitting analogy for this period of getting ready for this period of insight and reflection.
Most of the Olympic events can be measured in minutes, some in mere seconds. Preparing for these events takes considerably longer. Olympic athletes train for years in preparation for their participation. No detail is too small for consideration; no adjustment is too minor if it can lead to improvement.
As we examine our lives over the course of the past year, considering the times we missed the mark, reflecting on our failings and on our successes, we have the opportunity to begin making changes to our behavior. While we’re not focused on tweaking our stance or turn or stride, we are looking at adjusting our readiness to listen, our preparedness to comfort and our build up to frustration. Just as Olympic athletes don’t complete their training in mere weeks, making changes to our character requires time and attentiveness.
For each of the stars of the Rio Olympics, such as Michael Phelps, Simone Biles or Katey Ledecky, there are hundreds of athletes who participate in disciplines that receive little or no attention or who never move past the preliminary stage of their events. But they showed up, they participated.
In so many areas of life, we will never be stars. Few of us will be the smartest, the wealthiest or the most successful. The month of Elul is about showing up and being actively engaged in life and relationships. We might not be the best, but we are working on getting better as parents, spouses, siblings, friends and co-workers. We’re making strides, are being faster to respond and slower to anger.
Our sages tell us that Elul is an acronym for Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li – I am my beloved and my beloved is mine, referring to our relationship with God. It might be helpful instead to think of Elul as an acronym, for Ani L’acheri V’acheri Li – I am responsible to another and another to me. Our responsibilities extend beyond those we love and those with whom we are in close relationships to those who are neighbors, casual acquaintances or even strangers.
If we look to one of the preliminary races in the women’s 5000 meter, Abbey D’Agostino of the United States tripped and fell and in the process brought down Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand. Neither athlete had met the other prior to the race.
D’Agostino got up, then helped Hamblin up before trying to continue. D’Agostino’s knee then buckled and Hamblin waited until her competitor was able to move on again. Both women were then able to finish the race, far outside their personal bests. But this really was a personal best for them and for all of us.
Reaching out to and supporting others, for no other reason other than they are human and in need or in pain is the real message of the month of Elul. Elul is a reminder that we don’t live a singular existence, but we live in relationship with others. Working on those relationships, practicing kindness and compassion, shouldering some of their burden and letting them shoulder ours is how we ought to learn the lessons of the Olympics as we prepare for the Days of Awe.
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Candles for Shabbat should be lit on Fridays, September 2 at 7:52 p.m., September 9 at 7:41 p.m., September 16 at 7:30 p.m., September 23 at 7:19 p.m. and September 30 at 7:08 p.m.
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Editor’s note: Rabbi David Feder (Reform) has volunteered to provide Torah commentaries for Community.