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Now, It's Time for the Jewish Olympics

Now, It's Time for the Jewish Olympics

“Rule Yourself” – that’s the name of the new Under Armour campaign. Its newest commercial opens on a dimly lit Olympic-sized swimming pool, then shifts to the silhouette of Michael Phelps swimming effortlessly in the dark water. A montage of Phelps training continues as the music goes on: scenes of him lifting weights, swimming with drag suits, his coach yelling as he does a perfect flip turn.

And then, something really powerful: The commercial quickly cuts to Phelps in a bed, pulling the covers over his head as he rolls over to sleep. The music and light both fade as we see an endless swimming pool; the sound of a roaring crowd takes over. As we see the final shot of Phelps’ back facing the bright light of a crowd, the words “Rule Yourself” appear on the screen, and then: “It’s what you do in the dark that puts you in the light.”

This commercial is meant not only to sell comfortable sportswear but to show the public the sacrifice, hard work, pain, repetition, and struggle that all Olympic athletes go through.

It’s painful to watch – exhausting, even – but somehow, we nod in acknowledgement, knowing that Michael Phelps succeeded in ways most only dream about, winning gold medal after gold medal, breaking record after record. But the commercial doesn’t show Phelps smiling or with any of his medals. It doesn’t show him spending any of the $55 million of his net worth, or traveling across the globe. It shows him in the gym, and in the swimming pool. It shows his training: “It’s what you do in the dark that puts you in the light.”

Last month, we commemorated Tishah B’Av. This solemn day is the beginning of something; it’s meant to jar us, to wake us up to prepare for the next few weeks. Tishah B’Av is a day of mourning, of fasting. It’s supposed to feel foreign to us. We had an awesome summer, we celebrated Purim, and Passover, and Shavuot. We’re in party mode. Then boom. Tishah B’Av. Buzzkill.

But it turns out that there’s a strategy to all this. Tishah B’Av is the start of training season for our own Jewish Olympics – the High Holidays. Sure, they’re not as glamorous, there’s no torch-passing or opening ceremonies, and there are certainly no sponsors. But our Olympics are the test of our strength, the test of our endurance and our ability to overcome obstacles. Our Olympics are once a year, and training starts today.

The rabbis knew the power of holidays like Selichot, and Yom Kippur; they knew the awe of it all, the weight of it all. You can’t just jump right into it. By God, you’ll pull something.

The rabbis knew we needed the time from Tishah B’Av through the month of Elul to get in the zone of t’shuvah – of penitence, of vulnerability – so we start preparing now. Like the real Olympics, our Jewish version looks daunting, lingering there in October. It’s a multi-event season, with Selichot, Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Yizkor, children’s services, Tashlich, Sukkot, and then the finale, Simchat Torah, with all those potluck dinners in between.

It’s a lot, and it’s going to take work. It’s going to take planning. But that’s not the most important work we do.

No, the real athleticism in our Olympics is what goes on in our heads and in our hearts.

In less than two months, we’ve got to be ready – to swim through our past, pole vault over our fears, run toward t’shuvah, and of course, do the gymnastics of digging down deep into our hearts and reflecting upon who we truly are.

Our medal? It’s not gold, or silver, or bronze; it’s the seal in the Book of Life, and it’s knowing that we have learned from last year and are better than the year before.

The rabbis knew that we had to start early, that we couldn’t just jump in. They knew that before we could stand at the gates, before we could stand before one another hearing the words of Kol Nidre, we would have to do what Michael PhelpsChristian TaylorLexi Thompson, and all the other athletes have done: We must rule ourselves. Let us put in the work, let us train hard and push through the pain, sweat, and tears.

Let us rule ourselves, and let us remember that God knows: “It’s what we do in the dark, that puts us in the light.”

Rabbi Michael E. Harvey is the rabbi of Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. Ordained by Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in 2015, Rabbi Harvey earned a Master’s degree in Hebrew Letters from HUC-JIR and a Bachelor’s degree in psychology from Boston University. Throughout his tenure at HUC-JIR, he served congregations small and large in Arkansas, Missouri, Ohio, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas.

Rabbi Michael E. Harvey
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