Simone Biles & The Broken Tablets

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Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That's how the light gets in...


Some of you might be familiar with this refrain from Leonard Cohen's song "Anthem." There is so much Torah in it.
 
This week in Parashat Eikev, Moshe continues to recount the people's collective journey through the wilderness with a particular take on what happened after he smashed the first two tablets of the 10 Commandments (literally, 10 Statements):
 
"Thereupon the Lord said to me, 'Carve out two tablets of stone like the first...I will inscribe on the tablets the commandments that were on the first tablets that you smashed, and you shall deposit them in the ark.'" (Devarim/ Deuteronomy 10:1-2)
 
On the surface, it seems that the word "them" refers to the second tablets of stone which should be place respectfully in the ark. But because the first tablets that were smashed are also mentioned, could it be that BOTH the old broken tablets and the new whole tablets were placed together in the ark?
 
That is precisely what our sages intuit in the Talmud: "R. Yehoshua ben Levi said to his children:...Be careful regarding how you treat an elderly individual who has forgotten his learning due to an extenuating circumstance [e.g., old age, sickness, accident, struggle to make a livelihood, etc. as opposed to where his learning may have deserted him due to lack of interest, belief, or regular review], as we say, "The tablets, as well as the broken pieces of the tablets, were placed in the Ark." (Bava Batra 14b)
 
My colleague Rabbi George Gittleman (Congregation Shomrei Torah, Santa Rosa, California) has written: The broken and the whole is a profound metaphor for our lives and at the heart of our Holy Day experience.... we are all like those two sets of tablets. We are all in some ways broken-- we all experience loss, pain, real suffering. For most of us, sweetness, wholeness, is also there – both the broken and the whole make up who we are.
 
This week, the number one gymnast in the world, Simone Biles, withdrew from Olympics competition after her anxiety nearly caused a truly dangerous mishap. Earlier this summer, Naomi Osaka refused to appear at a press conference at the French Open citing her own struggles with mental health and social anxiety.
 
In our day and age, athletic games have become the replacement for the gladiator competitions of yore. We expect our sports teams or individual competitors to “fight to the death,” “to overcome all odds,” “to do or die.”
 
Essentially, we use them for our own pleasure and when the games are over, we move on.
 
But they often can’t. They are often stuck with the consequences of their heroism on our behalf.
 
A prime example is Kerri Strug, who in 1996, performed in the Olympics vault competition with an injured ankle in order to ensure her team would win the Gold medal. And then she was never able to perform again.
 
Twenty-five years later, we now have two women who feel empowered to advocate on their own behalf, realizing that their whole personhood-- their mental and their physical health-- is more important than any athletic game.
 
Against the American ethos of “don’t be a quitter,” both these young women, Naomi and Simone, recognize they are whole in their brokenness.
 
That's what are tradition is teaching us. The broken and the whole - it's all sacred. It's all part of us. It all belongs in the ark.
 
You aren't just your good, best self. You are also your terrible, worst self. You are your middling, neutral self. And it's all somehow sacred material.
 
Years ago, my son shared with me a realization he made regarding a truly maddening and irresponsible thing he had done. He admitted it was irresponsible. He figured out why he had done it. And he told me what he had learned from it and how it made him realize what he needed to do going forward.
 
WOW! That's what maturity looks like: I messed up (I am broken). I realize and admit I messed up (I know that I am broken). I can now understand what I need to do better (I can now move towards wholeness).
 
Can we please stop blaming ourselves and others for brokenness? We are all broken. Frail. Weak. Flawed. In need of rest.
 
It's what we do when we figure it out that gives us the opportunity for wholeness and healing.
 
Let's stop the blame game and come together in the ark - in our nation, in our larger community, in our Jewish community, in our families, in our relationships, in ourselves.

Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That's how the light gets in...

Shabbat Shalom