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Rules are made to be Broken

08/04/2021 01:24:35 PM


This is the D'var Torah that Cantor Fogelman offered on 7/30/2021.

The name of this week’s Torah portion, Eikev, literally means “if you obey these rules.” In its opening passages, Moses tells the Israelites that if they follow God’s laws, they will continue to be blessed with kindness and protection. Moses promises that the Land of Israel will overflow with milk and honey if the people obey God’s commandments and teach them to their children.

While there is lots of incentive for following the rules, not all of the rules have reasoning or explanations behind them. Sure, many of the 613 commandments in the Torah are ethically based, like you shall not murder and you shall not steal. The commandment for observing Shabbat explains that we keep Shabbat in commemoration of the fact that God created the world in six days and rested on the seven days. There are even some ethical reasons behind Kashrut: the kosher method for slaughtering an animal lessens the animal’s suffering. But there are plenty of other examples that are more difficult to justify. For example, why are Jews forbidden to wear wool and linen together? And why can’t we plant grains or greens in a vineyard? There is no reasoning behind some of these more obscure commandments other than the fact that those who observe them are considered to be virtuous in the eyes of God. 

         Right now, the world is fixated on the Tokyo Olympics, a competition that comes with its own litany of rules. In the age of COVID, there are even more regulations than usual in order to prevent the Olympics from becoming a super spreader event. The athletes must perform to empty stadiums without the presence and support of their family and friends.

         But there are other regulations that seem more arbitrary, particularly those regarding attire. It seems that men and women are held to different standards with regards to their Olympic uniforms, with the women’s uniforms often positioning them as sex symbols rather than athletes.

         And then there are the extremely high expectations placed upon some of the world’s most elite athletes. Although not officially rules persay, there is a lot of pressure put on Olympic athletes to bring home medals for their country. In our own thirst for victory, we sometimes forget that these athletes are people and not machines. They have their own needs and emotions and are much more than their accomplishments on the field or in the arena.

         I want to share the stories of several Olympians who had to make difficult decisions over the course of these Olympics based on the rules or expectations that they needed to follow.

Simone Biles:

         The biggest story in terms of defying expectations during these Olympics is of course Simone Biles. Biles pulled out of the Gymnastics All-Around and Team competitions because of mental health concerns. Many people are calling her a quitter, saying that she let her team and her country down. In fact, she did just the opposite. Biles knew that she wasn’t in the right headspace to compete safely, so she stepped down to protect herself from injury AND to let her teammates have a chance for a medal. Remember, Simone’s score for her single vault was by far the lowest score obtained by Team USA that night. And while the team couldn’t make up for all the points lost, they still achieved a silver medal, which is pretty impressive in itself.

         On Twitter, Biles retweeted a supportive comment from a fan: “Did she cost the team a gold medal? Or did her decision help her team win a silver medal? Because if she had a really bad performance her team would not have placed at all.”

         Along these lines, who are we to be the ones to judge wither the team wins gold, silver, or no medals at all? Quite frankly, it isn’t our business. Yes, we can get excited about our country’s successes. In reality, we have no direct control or implications regarding the outcome.

There’s actually a line in this week’s Torah portion, Deuteronomy 7:25, to be exact, that suggests that “You shall not covet the silver or gold that is upon them and take it for yourself.”

In the Torah, the “them” refers to the remnants of the idols belonging to the Israelites’ enemies. Their beliefs are not the same as our beliefs, and we should not derive benefit from their riches. Likewise, the achievements of our country’s Olympians do not actually belong to us directly! Sure, we can be excited by and proud of their accomplishments, but at the end of the day it is the athletes themselves who train so hard to attain the highest level of their chosen spots. We can celebrate Team USA earning a medal, but the victory doesn’t actually belong to the entire nation. It was earned by the competitors.

         Simone alluded to the pressure she is under after the team qualifications last Sunday: “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times. I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn’t affect me but damn sometimes it’s hard.”

         Swimming champion Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, sympathizes with Biles’ struggles. He’s been there, too.

“We’re human beings, nobody is perfect. It’s okay to not be okay,” he said. “It’s okay to go through ups and downs and emotional roller coasters. I felt like I was carrying, as Simone said, the weight of the world on my shoulders.”

Biles herself later tweeted appreciation for those who have shown support for her during this challenging time. “The outpouring love and support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics, which I never truly believed before.”

Simone Biles didn’t break any rules in her heroic decision to step down from this week’s competition, but she did break the mold. Hopefully her bravery will pave the way for changes in her sport, how we respect elite athletes, and for any stigmas we might have regarding the serious nature of mental illness.



The Norwegian Handball Team and the German Gymnastics Team

         The 2020 Olympics will be remembered for bringing heightened awareness to the challenges of mental illness, but they will also be known for pushing boundaries with regards to attire. If you were to watch men’s and women’s competitions across the same disciplines, you will notice a stark difference in attire. Men compete in tank tops and shorts, while women compete in crop tops, bikinis, and leotards.

         In the Olympic qualifying match for women’s handball, the Norwegian team wore mid-thigh elastic shorts. They were fined $150 Euros for violating international handball uniform requirements. For female handball players, bikini bottoms are the required uniform. The rules delineate that said bathing suits must include “a close fit with an upward angle toward the top of the leg.” How does this impact a woman’s ability to play handball??  The International Handball Federation has not been able to provide an explanation for this rule. Men, on the other hand, can wear shorts as long as four inches above the knee so long as the shorts are “not too baggy.”

         The pop star Pink was so appalled by the restrictions and fines that she offered to cover the fees. “I’m VERY proud of the Norwegian female beach handball team FOR PROTESTING THE VERY SEXIST RULES ABOUT THEIR ‘uniform,'” she tweeted. “The European handball federation SHOULD BE FINED FOR SEXISM. Good on ya, ladies. I’ll be happy to pay your fines for you. Keep it up.”

         The German women’s gymnastics team also famously challenged uniform expectations, although their attire was within the current regulations for their sport. Instead of wearing bikini-cut leotards, they wore full-body unitards that covered the legs to the ankle.

German gymnast Elisabeth Sietz wrote that the team wanted to set an example by wearing “a new type of suit” to give voice to athletes who “may feel uncomfortable or even sexualized in normal suits.”

"It's about what feels comfortable," she said. "We wanted to show that every woman, everybody, should decide what to wear."

         It’s important to note that Germany’s fashion statement comes in the heels of a major sex abuse scandal in US Gymnastics. Germany’s new uniforms change the focus from skin to skill and are a welcome option to a sport known for the immense amount of pressure placed upon its athletes.


Beatie Deutsch

I want to conclude by talking about one more Olympic hopeful who put the rules of her faith above everything else in her quest to fulfil her dreams. Beatie Deutch is the Israeli women’s Marathon champion. She grew up in the gyms of Passaic, NJ with the nickname “Speedy Beatie” before making Aliyah in 2008. She ran her second race while seven months pregnant with her fifth child, placed first in the 2018 Jerusalem Marathon, and. won Israel’s National Championship on 2019. She scored half-marathon victories in Latvia and Tel Aviv in 2019 and in Miami last year.

 With all of these achievements, Beatie was all but a shoe-in for the originally scheduled games last summer. But when the games were postponed because of COVID concerns, the schedule shifted. The Olympic marathon, which had originally been scheduled to take place on a Sunday, was now scheduled for a Saturday. What was Deutsch, who is Shomer Shabbat, to do?

There is nothing that explicitly forbids an observant Jew from running a race on Shabbat. However, running is Deutsch’s profession, and Israel pays her to race for them. So she hired an attorney and lobbied the International Olympic Committee to shift the race. She lost.

“Her story illustrates that it is never too late to chase one’s dreams, and that athletes can do so while balancing motherhood and staying true to their values,” wrote her attorney, Akiva Shapiro, in his appeal to the International Olympics Committee. “We will continue to raise awareness and fight for the rights of religious athletes at the Olympics and in all sporting bodies worldwide, which need to do a much better job considering and accommodating religious needs.” 

But that in itself wasn’t the end of Beatie’s Olympic dreams. This past spring, she competed in a qualifying race in Wales that would have made her eligible for the Olympics. Despite setting a personal record, she lost that fight, too.

Her deep-seated Jewish faith powered her at the finish line in spite of her disappointment: “Everything that happens is for the best and is part of Hashem’s plan for me.”

Had Beatie won, she would have faced a difficult choice: She would have had to forgo her dream on behalf of her faith, or she could have worked with a rabbi to find loopholes around racing on Shabbat. Either decision might have caused her discomfort. Instead of agonizing over the right path, she is more determined than ever to race in the 2024 games in Paris

“I believe I can achieve my goal with Hashem’s help,” she wrote on Facebook. “But at the end of the day, I want to know that I achieved something greater than the Olympic standard. I want to know that I made a difference.”

In this way, Beatie Deutsch exemplifies the charge given by Moses at the beginning of our Torah portion, Eikev. She is unwavering in her faith an as a result has become a role model to Jews, to women, and to mothers everywhere. There may be no explanation for the roadblocks in her way – or why the IOC rejected her appeal – but she remains strong, steady, and determined to chase her dreams.


Shabbat Shalom!

Thu, June 30 2022 1 Tammuz 5782