People often wonder why God no longer speaks to us directly.
The year is drawing to a close and Rosh Hashana, once again, is nearly upon us. I think that God does find a way to communicate with His children. I'm sure he has a message or two for us. All we have to do is tune in.
And so I did…tune in, that is, as did hundreds of millions of others worldwide, who also tuned in to the Summer Olympics. Not that I would call myself an ardent badminton or kayaking fan. Truth be known, I cannot locate Slovenia on a Rand-McNally nor have I ever lectured on the relative skills related to quadruple sculls repechage rowing vs. women's 25M pistol shooting. But rather than appearing un-American, I just tuned in.
Looking back, the date was August 18, the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul - exactly 30 days before Rosh Hashana. Coincidence, I guess.
The scene was the Olympic Indoor Hall, Athens. Never in history had an American ever taken the gold medal in the coveted men's individual all-around gymnastics competition. Today the specter centered on an unassuming, freckled-faced gymnast from Waukesha, Wisconsin, named Paul Hamm. An imposing field of 23 aspiring competitors hailing from South Korea, Kazakhstan, Israel, and Cuba - to name just a few - came to the Games with equal grit and fortitude, and, undoubtedly thousands of hours of arduous training, with eyes on the very same goal.
The USA could ill afford defeat, and Paul Hamm knew it.
Adding to Hamm's pressure were the shocking early disappointments that the heavily favored Americans had already suffered in men's and women's tennis, men's basketball, and several swim meets. The good 'ole U.S.A. could ill afford yet another unexpected defeat, and Paul Hamm knew it.
The gymnastic all-around consists of six separate rotations, each, of course, watchfully judged and scored, after which the final tallies determine the medalists. Hamm did not disappoint. He came out like a beacon at midnight, scoring a hefty 9.725 (out of 10) on the opening floor exercise, good enough to tie for first place at the outset. His momentary skid to second place after the pommel horse hardly concerned him as he vaulted back into the lead after the rings competition.
Three events down and three to go. The stadium scoreboard showed Hamm's name on top and the faces of the others in varying shades of fatalistic pessimism. No one believed they could actually wrestle the lead away.
Hamm readied himself for rotation number four - the vault. He had no inkling that unimaginable disaster was just seconds away. Leaping backwards, Hamm executed perfectly one-and-a-half somersaults in the air. The elusive "Gold" was inching closer. Then, like a razor-sharp blade diving into hot butter, he segued effortlessly into his landing phase - something called a Tsukahara, with two-and-a-half twists; extremely difficult, with a blind landing.
Shockingly, Hamm hit the mat crouching and could not establish balance. His legs tangled and he stumbled to his right, heading ironically and directly into the judges' table, where one of the judges was forced to use his own hand to fend him off. It was like taking a road test, driving perfectly, and finishing by crashing into the examiner's car… only a thousand times worse.
A glazed look of horror washed over his face. The score of 9.137 undoubtedly finished him. The crowd gasped as Hamm plunged into 12th place. The dream was over.
How often do we imagine winning the gold, only to stumble into the judges table?
How often, in life, do we dream of accomplishing something really important yet fall short of our expectations? How many times do we imagine winning the gold, only to find ourselves tangled and stumbling into the judges table? How many Rosh Hashanas have come and gone with our list of 'New Year's Resolutions' looking exactly the same as the previous year's list?
Too many, I suspect. And what is our response to our perennial failures? More often than not, the human condition kicks in with the usual letdown and predictable disillusionment.
What's the point? we wonder. Change is just too difficult. Greatness is for really great people - not for me.
What a pity. How different the outcome could be if only we firmly believed that there exists no obstacle that cannot be overcome, and were determined to make the necessary choices to rise to the challenge and overcome them.
Apparently, Paul Hamm was made of that stuff.
He sat teary-eyed and dejected; his hunched shoulders grazing the arena wall. Years of bated hope had washed away in an instant. Two final events remained while 11 champions-to-be smugly blazed the path ahead of him. Perhaps there was ample time to at least regain some composure and self-respect, but certainly nothing more than that.
But somehow, Hamm shook off his crippling despair.
"I just went for it," he explained later.
Boy, did he ever. He mustered everything he had in him -- and then some -- managing to flirt with perfection on the parallel bars and arise from the depths of defeat. His score of 9.837 was the highest in the event and catapulted him from twelfth to fourth place overall. The remarkable comeback was suddenly within reach. It seems Hamm had saved his best, for last.
Grasping the high bar as if his life depended on it, he attacked this final routine as never before. With the crowd on its feet sensing history, Hamm executed flawlessly, completing three straight blind release moves that startled even his coaches. He spun off the bar, landing on the mat as if it were a giant suction cup. The masses roared. The matrix board flashed 9.837. Hamm held his head is total disbelief. The miracle was his. Gold!
(Soon after the historic event, controversy ensued involving a possible scoring error that could have altered the results. Whether or not Paul Hamm should reconsider these circumstances does not, in any way, dilute his incredible achievement and the message it brings to all of us.)
THE FULL MOON
The Jewish calendar is primarily a lunar one. Indeed, the Jewish people, in its storied history, is frequently likened to the moon. It is said that just as the moon is 'reborn' after a period of decline and apparent disappearance, so too, Israel's tragic decline will also end, and its light will blaze to fullness.
In fact, Israel's ancient history bears a startling resemblance to the moon. There were 15 generations from Abraham to King Solomon - at which time Israel rose to unprecedented greatness (like the full moon at 15 days). Immediately after, their decline began until it reached its depth in sadness 15 generations later with the destruction of the First Temple, completing the cycle.
Although the New Moon is not visible on that day, we don't doubt that it will return.
The moon's lesson of disappearance and rebirth is one we must carry with us forever. Perhaps that is why Rosh Hashana, the pinnacle of our spiritual revival process, is designated to occur on the first day of the month. Although the New Moon is not visible on that day, we don't doubt that it will return. The message is as clear as it is poignant. Never can we allow despair to engulf us - not individually and not as a people. That is the hallmark of ushering in a New Year.
Curious. This unprecedented Olympian comeback just happened to occur on the first day of the lunar month of Elul, the very beginning of the sacred period for introspection and repentance in preparation for Rosh Hashana.
God wants us to remember that giving up is simply not an option. And He has, in His holy arsenal, an infinite amount of avenues, vehicles, and messengers (maybe even one paradoxically named "Hamm"), that He can employ to help deliver this most poignant communication.
Watching Paul Hamm in his moment of international humiliation should give us pause. Watching Paul Hamm, minutes later achieve his moment of boundless glory, should give us hope. Indeed we can make the difficult choices to rise from our despair. Somewhere in between, he met the judges face to face.
People often wonder why God no longer speaks to us directly.