Yom Kippur Day 5773

  Olympic Mettle This past summer we were witness to the Olympic Games in London.  Although there had been many concerns about terrorism, transportation, and weather, the games came off magnificently.  A few weeks later London hosted the Paralympics, a multi-sport event for the disabled, in the same stadium venues.  These games, recently concluded, were a resounding success as well. If the Olympic Games are associated with the Greeks, then surely the Paralympics ought to be associated with the Jews.  It was a Jewish physician who began the Paralympic games in 1948.  Dr. Ludwig Guttman was a Jewish neurologist who fled Nazi Germany before the beginning of WWII. He settled in Oxford, England, with his wife and two children.  In 1943, the British government asked Dr. Guttman to become the head of Stoke Mandeville, a hospital that treated spinal cord injuries.  At the time Dr. Guttman took over the hospital, people who had sustained spinal cord injuries were considered hopeless cases. Eighty percent of them died within two weeks of sustaining their injury.  Dr. Guttman revolutionized the treatment of spinal cord injury patients and began to incorporate activities such as watch repair and sports into their rehabilitation. In July, 1948 – the opening day of the Olympics in London that year – he organized a little known competition of archery and javelin throw for sixteen disabled men and women on the grounds of the hospital.  The first Parallel Olympics were held in Rome, in 1960, a week after the close of the Olympic Games in Rome that year. The games were not televised and received little publicity. This year, 4,200 athletes from 165 countries competed in the Paralympics held after the Olympics.  The games were televised around the world, although unfortunately precious little television coverage was given in the United States. I wish the Paralympics had been held before, instead of after the Olympics.  I think some of the Olympians would have gotten a better perspective on life, a better idea of what courage is, and a deeper sense of what really matters if they had watched these brave disabled athletes of the Paralympics perform.  As we know, the Olympians performed magnificently, and with grace and courage. The individual and the team competitions were exciting to watch.  It was what some of the athletes said after the events that I suspect many of us found disappointing.  Michael Phelps accomplished something amazing, something nobody else had ever done before – winning 22 medals over his career.  He is without a doubt a great athlete.  As reporters gathered around him after his final victory, he boasted, “I am now the best swimmer of all time.  I am the Michael Jordan of my generation – and more. I did everything that I set out to do, and I did it perfectly.”  Perhaps he would have exhibited some humility about his own achievements had the Paralympics been held before the Olympics. Then he might have heard of Zipora Rubin Rosenbaum, an Israeli woman who participated in the Paralympics from 1964 to 1988.  Over her career, Zipora Rubin Rosenbaum won 21 Paralympic medals, one shy of Michael Phelps’ impressive record.  Only she did it in a wheelchair — and her medals came in shot put, javelin, pentathalon, discus, table tennis and swimming – six different sports!   Then there is Ussain Bolt, the world’s fastest human.  One cannot help but admire his athletic prowess, the way he blew away the competition at the Olympics. But when he walked into the press conference room following his final victory he called for a ‘drum roll’ and then he said: ‘I’m now a legend. I am the greatest athlete to live. To all the people who doubted me, who thought I would lose here, you can stop talking now. I am a living legend.’  Then Bolt addressed his audience. ‘I have one more thing to say. I am now a living legend. Bask in my glory. If I don’t see that in the paper and on TV in all your countries I will never give an interview again. Tell everyone to follow me on Twitter.’ If the Paralympics were held first, perhaps Bolt would have gained some perspective on his accomplishments.  Had he seen wheelchair tennis or wheelchair basketball, perhaps he would have kept in mind that running fastest is not necessarily the greatest accomplishment in the world.  And where was the “thank you” to his coaches?  Most likely, he did not become the world’s fastest human all by himself. Compare this behavior to the remarkable tribute of the French swimmer, Fabian Gilot.  After completing the final leg of the men’s 4X100 relay, in which the French won the gold medal, he raised his arm in a wave to the crowd.  Tattooed on his left arm, large enough for all to see, were Hebrew letters which read, “ANI KLOOM BILADEYHEM” — I am nothing without them.”  This was a salute to the husband of Gilot’s grandmother, his “step-grandfather” Max Goldschmidt. Max Goldschmidt was a Holocaust survivor who became one of the most important influences on Fabian Gilot’s life.  Gilot’s father explained that "Max was a Jew who survived the Holocaust and Auschwitz." He added: "He was born in Berlin and moved to France after the war, in Fabien's eyes he was a hero. Fabian admired his grandfather and was very attached to him." By the way, Fabian Gilot is not Jewish, which made the tribute, in Hebrew etched into his arm, all the more moving.   Now, I think that is an example of how a winner should express himself.  A great athlete should always acknowledge the people who helped them get to where they are.  Isn’t Gilot saying, “I may have won a gold medal, but I didn’t do it alone.  I’m not the greatest — the greatest people are those who helped and supported me along the way.”  We admire athletes ultimately for their strength of will and spirit, their ability to overcome limitations, their capacity to rise to the challenge, their willingness to risk failure on a world stage.  Athletes detract from their very real accomplishments, and our admiration of them, when they demonstrate overweening pride and arrogance. Why am I speaking about this on Yom Kippur? It is because arrogance and pride are among the greatest sins that we struggle with in our lives.  In our prayer, the “Al Chet” we say, “For the sin which we have committed before you by “Azut Metzach” which means arrogance, pride, insolence, boasting, egoism.   It certainly is an occupational hazard of the public figure.  The famous newsman, Walter Cronkite, told the following story:  He was sailing down the Mystic River in Connecticut and following the channel's tricky turns through an expanse of shallow water.  A boatload of young people sped past him, its occupants shouting and waving their arms. Cronkite waved back a cheery greeting and his wife said, "Do you know what they were shouting?" "Why, it was 'Hello, Walter,'” he replied. "No," she said. "They were shouting, "Low water, Low water.'" Such are the pitfalls, he concluded, of fame's egotism.  The earliest rabbis were very concerned about the sin of arrogance, and they wrote a great deal about the importance of humility. Perhaps it was because they lived under the rule of Rome, and experienced firsthand the arrogance of their Roman overlords.  But they themselves were the elite of their society, the most learned men of their generation.  Treated with great respect and deference, they themselves had to guard against getting carried away by their own sense of importance. “Be very humble of spirit, for in the end you will be eaten by worms,” was their blunt reminder of the ultimate fate of even the most celebrated persons in this world.  They warned against the corrosive effect of pride in family life as well.  “An arrogant person is not accepted even in his own household,” warns the Talmud, “At first members of his family jump at his every word; after a while they find him repulsive.”     The prophet Jeremiah speaks directly to this point.  He says, “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom; Let not the strong man glory in his strength, And let not the rich man glory in his wealth-But let he who wishes to boast, boast only in this: that he is wise enough to understand this: That G-d cares about kindness, justice and righteousness; That only in these does G-d delight. So how do we guard against arrogance?  How can we practice humility?  It’s not easy. There is the story of the synagogue that realized the importance of humility, so it formed a committee to find the most humble person in the temple. Many names were submitted and numerous candidates evaluated. Finally, the committee came to a unanimous decision. They selected a quiet man who always worked in the background and had never taken credit for anything he had done. They awarded him the "Most Humble" button for his faithful service. However, the next day they had to take it away from him — because he pinned it on. The first way we guard against arrogance is to strike a balance between it and humility.  There is nothing wrong with feeling proud.  There is nothing wrong with having CHUTZpah.  I sure have to have Chutzpah today to stand in front of 800 people and think that my words to you would hopefully have some meaning.  I have to have some pride in the words that I have prepared, or I would be embarrassed to share them with you today.  I can’t be so humble and feel so unworthy of addressing you that I don’t do it at all! The rabbis say that a timid person cannot learn. They would be too humble even to ask a question of their teacher, too modest to want to excel, to stand out.  That is the other extreme we should avoid. So, we have to understand that there is a continuum between humility and arrogance, and we have to find a comfortable place on that continuum.  Maimonides called this the” golden mean”. He taught that we should not be extreme in any of our conduct.  We should seek out a middle ground. We should not be boastful, but neither should we be overly humble.  It is perfectly acceptable to feel we have accomplished something significant, to take pride in our achievements – but let others praise us for it!  Ussain Bolt and Michael Phelps are certainly special, and perhaps both are indeed legends. Let the newspapers or the broadcasters say it!   They should restrain themselves and follow the advice of Proverbs – Ye-hallel-kha  Zar  ve-lo  Pi-cha – “Let others speak your praise, but not your own mouth.” We should not boast, but we should be able to accept a compliment. I’ve noticed some people don’t know how to accept a compliment.  If someone praises us, there’s no need to contradict them. There’s no need to ignore the praise.  We can simply reply, “Thank you” to a compliment. So if you want to compliment me today after this sermon, please, feel free to do so. I promise I will not let it go to my head! A second way we can guard against arrogance is to remember that there is no such thing as a self- made man or woman.  One reason Michael Phelps and Ussain Bolt flubbed it was because in the moment they achieved their glory they forgot the people who helped them.  Fabian Gilot’s gesture was so moving because by inscribing the words, “I am nothing without them,” in Hebrew no less, on his arm, he made sure he would always remember, and we would know, how he got there.  When Aly Raisman was awarded her medal in gymnastics, she placed it over the head of her coach, Mihai Brestyan, in a tribute to the man most responsible for her triumph.  Consider the giant Sequoia tree.  Some of them are over 2500 years old and 300 feet tall.  You would think that to hold a tree up that is that tall, for so long, their roots would sink a hundred feet into the earth.  But that is not how the giant Sequoias do stand up. Their roots are very shallow. But they stand in groves, and their roots intertwine, they lock together, so that when a wind comes or lightning strikes, they hold one another up.  All the trees support and protect one another.  They may be among the most majestic living things on earth, but they depend on one another.  So it is with us. We stand tall because we work together.  Our synagogue is successful because of the hundreds and hundreds of hours that many, many, members, along with clergy and professional staff, put in to make it a successful and sustaining community.  We hold each other up.  If we remember that, we can guard against arrogance. A third way to guard against arrogance is to keep in mind the message of Yom Kippur. We need to carry these words with us throughout the year.   We are only here on earth for a relatively short time.  As the poet writes in our Machzor:  “We come from dust and return to dust, we are fragile as pottery, easily shattered, like the grass that withers, like the flower that fades, like the fleeting shadow, like the vanishing cloud, like the wind that rushes by, like the scattered dust, like the dream that flies away.” Who will remember in a hundred years that we ever lived?  Who will remember the names of the greatest Olympians in a hundred years?  If some people do remember those names as great athletes of the early 21rst century, what will those Olympians care?  It won’t matter anymore to them. Beyond the grave we have no cares. Fame is fleeting. Our accomplishments are impermanent – but the effects of our kindness, our justice and our righteousness endure long after we have shed these mortal coils.