ROSH HA-SHANAH EVENING SERMON
OCTOBER 2, 2016
RABBI AMY B. BIGMAN
I love the Olympics! For as long as I can remember, I have always especially enjoyed watching the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. I love watching all of the countries – this year there were 207 countries – entering the Olympic Stadium. I especially love watching, and, yes, I have to admit, in the privacy of my home, cheering on the American and Israeli teams as they enter the stadium.
This year there were many highlights for the American team: 121 total medals, including 46 gold. Five of those gold medals were won by Michael Phelps and four by fellow swimmer Katie Ledecky. Our national team really ruled the pool. Sadly much of the swim team’s success was overshadowed by the inappropriate and embarrassing conduct of swimmer Ryan Lochte.
Lochte and three other swimmers were out for a night on the town after finishing their races. Lochte seemed to be the ring-leader and he reported that he and his buddies had been held at gunpoint by robbers posing as police officers. The police in Rio de Janeiro, where the Olympics took place, determined that they were not held at gunpoint, but rather that they vandalized a gas station. Subsequent reporting indicates that neither version – Lochte’s nor the police’s – seems to have been totally accurate.
Days later, Ryan Lochte “apologized” in what some have called a “fauxpology.” He said, in part:
I want to apologize for my behavior last weekend – for not being more careful and candid in how I described the events of that early morning and for my role in taking the focus away from the many athletes fulfilling their dreams of participating in the Olympics…
It’s traumatic to be out late with your friends in a foreign country – with a language barrier – and have a stranger point a gun at you and demand money to let you leave, but regardless of the behavior of anyone else that night, I should have been much more responsible in how I handled myself… I accept responsibility for my role in this happening and have learned some valuable lessons.
First: what took so long for Lochte to apologize? And second: Why didn’t he tell the true story right away? It seems that Lochte has an excuse for everything. He shouldn’t have been in the position he was in in the first place. But since he was in that position, why didn’t he just admit it from the get-go? “Look, I messed up. I shouldn’t have done the things I did. I apologize to the United States, Brazil, and the International Olympics Committee for my behavior.”
When we apologize we must be sincere. We must really mean it. Ryan Lochte never seemed to really mean it. He said some of the correct things – such as taking responsibility and learning from his mistakes – but his facial expressions and tone of voice indicated that they were simply words without much substance to them.
This past month, the month of Elul, we have been asking forgiveness from those we have hurt this past year. Beginning tonight and for the next ten days, we ask forgiveness from God. We must be sincere for true repentance requires such.
Probably the best “feel-good” story of the Olympics happened on the track with two runners that you’d probably never heard of before the Olympics: American Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand. The two fell during a 5,000 meter heat. Instead of getting up and continuing her run, D’Agostino got up and then helped Hamblin up, urging her to keep running. Then Hamblin did the same for D’Agostino as she stumbled. D’Agostino ended up finishing the race on what was later diagnosed as a torn ACL.
Even though the two runners had never met, they helped each other finish the race. In interviews both women noted how helping each other was more important than winning the race. “That girl is the Olympic spirit right there,” Hamblin told the Associated Press. “I’ve never met her before… And isn’t that just so amazing? Such an amazing woman.”
Not only were both D’Agostino and Hamblin amazing women, embodying the Olympic spirit, but our women’s gymnastics team was also amazing. The team — consisting of Temple Beth Avodah of Newton, Massachusetts member Aly Raisman, Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Madison Kocian, and Laurie Hernandez — won the women’s team gold medal, along with three individual gold medals for Simone, two silver medals Aly, one silver for Madison, one silver for Laurie, and one bronze medal for Simone.
Simone Biles was the women’s individual all-around winner. As amazing as 19-year-old Simone was in competition – and she really was amazing! –, her efforts were partially overshadowed by a slight controversy regarding her parents. Her dad, Ron, is Simone’s biological grandfather. After his daughter gave up custody of Simone and her younger sister, they went through various foster homes. Ron and his wife Nellie adopted them when Simone was six years old.
Al Trautwig, one of NBC’s gymnastics commentators, made reference to Simone’s parents and said that they were her adopted parents, “not her real parents.” This made many viewers, including me, furious. Adoptive parents are not biological parents, but they are most definitely real parents.
As many of you know, I have two younger siblings – my sister Jill and my brother Kevin. One of them is adopted. And unless I told you which one is adopted, you would never know. The three of us are siblings, plain and simple. It doesn’t matter if we were born of the same parents. As kids we did all of the same things that other siblings do: we played together, we fought, we made up – and now as adults, although we live in different states, we do our best to support each other and to see each other whenever possible. Our parents taught us to always stick together and so we siblings have seen each other through marriages and divorces, through back surgery and knee surgery, through life’s ups and downs. Why? Because we are family, plain and simple, and that’s what families do: they take care of each other.
You know, we strive to be a family here at Shaarey Zedek, too. I often refer to our congregation as a family because I hope that all of us feel at-home here. One of the dictionary definitions of the word “family” is “all the people living in the same house.” That’s us: we’re all in the same house, the Shaarey Zedek house.
It doesn’t matter whether we are Jews-by-birth or Jews-by-choice, whether we are observant Jews or non-observant Jews, or whether we are non-Jews who have found a spiritual home here. None of that matters for we are family. We are the Shaarey Zedek family. We don’t all have to like each other; we don’t all have to agree with one another; but we do have to respect each other, be nice to each other, and stay together. Especially in a Jewish community the size of ours, we must stick together and support each other. That’s what the Jewish people have done throughout our history.
As we begin this new year, I pray:
May each of us always feel welcome here. May we always feel loved and supported here. May this building be our home and these people our family.
And may this new year of 5777 be a happy, healthy, good year for each of us and for our congregation, and may it be the year that our world finds peace.
Kein y’hi ratzon.
May this be God’s will.